It's happening again.
With Double Masters firmly in our rearview mirror and Zendikar Rising still about a month away, the eyes of the Magic community have once again turned to a familiar source of ire and debate: The Reserved List. What began a few weeks ago as a series of cEDH, Legacy and Commander spikes has turned into a speculator-driven free-for-all, with everything from the venerable Mox Diamond to the nearly useless Apocalypse Chime experiencing massive buyouts. Seriously—Apocalypse Chime was bought out over the weekend! If the (arguably) worst card on the Reserved List can spike from $0 to $15 overnight, what hope do Gaea's Cradle and Underground Sea have of ever being affordable again?
Unfortunately, the online discourse surrounding the Reserved List isn't particularly helpful to anyone trying to figure out what the heck to actually do about these buyouts. This sort of thing happens every year or two, and the discussion cycle is always the same:
While it's possible that WotC will actually abolish the Reserved List at some point, I've been having this debate for more than a decade now and I don't think it's particularly useful to re-hash that particular hypothetical question today. Instead, I'd like to assume that the Reserved List is here to stay and discuss what that means for you and your Magic collection. Should you be buying Reserved List cards right now? Should you be selling into the hype? Are the latest spikes as real as they seem? When do Reserved List cards spike, and how long do they last? Let's find out!
I don't spend much time in the world of high finance beyond Magic: The Gathering, in part because I don't have a lot of money and in part because I find big-C Capitalism and its collected fandom both awful and insufferable. I do know a few things, though, and one of them is that precious metals—especially gold—tend to do well during times of economic uncertainty. The theory is simple: if banks and companies are going belly-up, like they were during the 2008 financial crisis, then holding stock in any of them feels risky. Not only might the company you've invested in go under, but the entire market is likely to react poorly to the increased risk and take a dive. (Things are somewhat more complex in practice, as markets rarely behave rationally out in the world, but let's keep the analogy simple for now.)
On the flip side, gold has clear, tangible value. It has been expensive for hundreds of years, and it will probably continue to be expensive for hundreds of years to come. It isn't just pretty, it's useful in all sorts of industrial manufacturing processes. It's also scarce, and getting more out of the ground is an expensive and difficult process. If you're reeling from investment losses in the stock market, a practice so ephemeral and detached that it can feel like watching numbers on a screen go up and down at random, the idea of buying something physical gains a lot of appeal.
What does gold have in common with Reserved List cards? They both feel safe in a world of uncertain investment opportunities. While gold tends to spike in response to severe economic turmoil, Reserved List cards spike whenever WotC gets a little too reprint-happy with Modern and Commander staples. A whole bunch of people saw what Double Masters did to the prices of cards that used to be in high demand, and they decided to focus on investments that felt like more of a "sure thing." And as long as WotC fails to abolish the Reserved List, their decision will probably pay off.
On the other hand, Reserved List cards tend to drop whenever people are excited about some new format, set or metagame. This is because Reserved List cards tend to be worth a lot as collector's pieces, but they have very little bang for their buck in terms of play value, at least compared to non-Reserved List cards that cost about the same amount. So if you need some cash to drop on a new Modern deck or something, why not cash in on that stack of Peacekeeper you bought last summer and turn them into something more useful?
This is a pretty easy trend to map, and you can use it to your advantage. The best time to buy Reserved List cards is when everyone is focused on something else, and the best time to sell them is when every card on the Reserved List is spiking and nobody wants to risk missing out on their only chance to own a Khabál Ghoul or whatever. That means you should be focused a lot more on selling right now than buying.
Remember back at the start of the article, when I told you that Apocalypse Chime spiked to $15 out of nowhere? That figure was based on the MTGGoldfish price chart, which currently looks like this:
That's a pretty straightforward graph. The card has been kicking around the $0.60-$0.70 range for months, then bam—$15 out of nowhere. You can see that massive blue bar at the end of the table, pointing straight up. It's exactly the sort of thing that causes Reserved List FOMO—if this stupid card can hit $15, what's next? Screw it—let's buy out the entire list, one by one.
About that. Here's what Apocalypse Chime looks like on the database I have access to:
This looks a lot different, right? There were a few scattered sales in the $0.50-$0.80 range earlier this month, then a buyout back on August 12th. Then there were a few more spec sales on 8/13 and 8/14, no sales at all on 8/15, and finally a single source buyout on 8/16. And when I say single source, I mean it: exactly one person bought every single Apocalypse Chime that was sold on 8/16, which means that zero(!) other people bought a copy of Apocalypse Chime on either 8/15 or 8/16, at an average price of $0.98 each.
Where did that $15 MTGGoldfish price tag come from? I'm not sure. The cheapest Apocalypse Chime currently listed on TCGplayer right now is $10.99 plus $0.99 shipping, but TCGplayer still lists $1.97 as the card's market price, and not a single copy has sold in the $10 range yet. We'll see where Apocalypse Chime ends up setting, but as of now it's hard to call this anything but an unsuccessful spec buyout. It's definitely not a reason to go out and spend $10+ on a card that nobody actually wants to play.
On the flip side, here's another Reserved List card that's spiked recently: Gilded Drake. Here's what that card's price chart looks like for the entirety of 2020, both on MTGGoldfish and TCGplayer:
There's a lot more overlap here, and you can actually see the same pattern unfold in both charts. What we gain by looking at the TCGplayer data is how each spike was influenced by a small surge in demand, and each drop by a dip in demand. Neat, right? It's rare that charts actually make this much sense, and I kind of want to savor that for a moment before we move on. It's also worth pointing out that nobody went deep on Gilded Drake this year—only one or two people bought more than a single copy at a time, which tells me that most of these buys were personal Commander purchases.
Based on this, it looks like we can trust the Goldfish charts a lot more when the gains are incremental. Their formula, whatever it is, seems to break down when there's a massive buyout spike. Otherwise, it seems to pretty clearly map with TCGplayer's sales data.
Of course, a lot of the Reserved List hype right now is buyout driven, and it falls more in the Apocalypse Chime camp than the Gilded Drake camp. For example, here's Paradigm Shift on both MTGGoldfish and TCGplayer:
Again, you can kind of see the incremental growth playing out here, but the massive spike to $50 just doesn't exist in the sales data. We can't even blame the lowest available TCGplayer price on the disconnect this time, as you can pick up a near mint copy for $33 + $1.49 shipping right now if you want. That's expensive, but it's a far cry from $50, a price that this card has never once sold for. Instead, it appears as if Paradigm Shift spent about a month climbing from about $10 to about $20—an interesting and important development, to be sure, but a far different story than the MTGGoldfish graph is showing.
Lastly, we have Gaea's Cradle. This card is especially interesting, because it showed up on MTGGoldfish with an Apocalypse Chime-style graph last week, complete with one of those scary-looking vertical lines pointing straight up at the ceiling to a brand-new price tag of $945. Social media just about had a meltdown over this one, so I showed you what the TCGplayer sales data looked like as of August 9th, two days after Gaea's Cradle supposedly hit $950. The real price chart looked like this:
Yeah. A single graded copy sold for $1,000, but the card seemed to stabilize after that, and copies were still selling in the $500-$600 range—a great deal higher than the $300-$400 it was worth back in April, to be sure, but nowhere near $945. Then I wrote, "the perception that Cradle is surging toward the $1,000 mark might actually cause something like that to happen. People have a lot of FOMO and very little patience when it comes to Reserved List cards, and there aren't that many Cradles to go around."
Turns out, that's exactly what happened. Here's that same Gaea's Cradle price chart, but with an additional week of data:
Turns out, all of the conversation about Gaea's Cradle being worth $1,000 actually set off a cascade of sales and price spikes. All of the sub-$700 Cradles were bought up by people who didn't want to miss out, and a few people even paid upwards of $1,200 for their copies. A few major dealers raised their buylist price in response, and the cheapest LP copy on TCGplayer right now is roughly $740. That's still not $945, but it's a damn sight closer than it would have been if we'd spent the week talking about Elephant Graveyard or something instead.
While a few people decided to message me last week telling me that I was wrong to call the Goldfish chart misleading because Gaea's Cradle did eventually spike, I feel the need to point out that the causal relationship here was backwards. Price charts are supposed to measure increases or decreases in price, but this particular spike was caused by a misleading price chart going viral, which caused a spike to occur.
This, of course, is what the Apocalypse Chime buyer was probably trying to cause as well. By creating the perception that the card is "worth" $15, they might be able to sell their stack of $0.98 copies of Apocalypse Chime for $5-$6. It'll probably work at some point, too—if not now, then in some future Reserved List buyout cycle, when people really do realize that they can't live without a copy of Apocalypse Chime.
But today, I feel like it's worth drawing a distinction between the different sorts of Reserved List price spikes. Gilded Drake was purely demand-driven, so it should keep most of its gains going forward as long as the card continues to see play. Apocalypse Chime was purely speculator-driven, so its price tag is going to enter freefall until it actually finds a price tag that some collectors or players are willing to pay. Gaea's Cradle is a hybrid of the two—it was naturally spiking due to player demand, and increased scrutiny caused a bunch of people to buy copies in order to force the issue. It'll likely settle somewhere in between, dropping off a little as the focus moves away from Reserved List cards but probably not back below $600 for a while.
The biggest trap people fall into with Reserved List cards is assuming that they never lose value in the future. Believe me, I get it: these cards are all a lot more expensive than they were ten years ago, and we're used to reprints acting as the main safety valve to prevent every old Magic card from being worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. It can be tempting to look at a card like Gaea's Cradle and think, "Well, WotC is never printing more of these, so this card is just going to be more and more scarce, more and more expensive. If I don't buy in now, I might never have another chance."
This makes sense in a vacuum, but it doesn't actually track with how Reserved List prices behave. Let's take a look at some really, REALLY big charts—I'm talking a decade of pricing data all at once—and see what the ebbs and flows of the Reserved List actually look like. Let's start with Peacekeeper:
Peacekeeper has proven a little more volatile than most Reserved List cards over the past decade, but I wanted to start here because it's emblematic of just how much you can benefit if you're willing to be patient. Peacekeeper started out 2010 as a $1 rare, spiked to $12, bottomed out back at $2, spiked to $9, dropped back to $4, spiked to $30, dropped back to $3, and then spiked back to $18. All without a single reprint! While it seems like Reserved List cards are unobtainable during periods of heavy spikes, Peacekeeper is a Reserved List staple that's playable in both Legacy and Commander, and it was available for just $3 earlier this year. It may never drop that low again, but I'd be shocked if it stays above $10 forever.
Here's Replenish, a Commander staple from Urza's Destiny. This card had been slowly gaining ground for years before it finally spiked back in 2018, peaking at $80 after kicking around the $10 range for years and years. Replenish may never be $10 again, but it was readily available for less than $30 last winter before it began surging back toward $60 again this summer. And remember: that $50 drop from $80 down to $30 wasn't the result of a reprint, or even a metagame shift. It's just the sort of thing that happens to Reserved List cards sometimes.
Here's Lion's Eye Diamond, a chart that looks like Peacekeeper sans the massive drops. Even still, the pattern of spike-and-dip is pretty clear. It began 2010 as a $35 card, crept up to $75, then spiked to $125 and then $150 in rapid succession. It stabilized at $100 before creeping back up again, eventually spiking to $250. Then it dropped again, this time to $150, before spiking a little lower this time, at $220. Then a drop back to $170, then a final spike to $300.
Lion's Eye Diamond is a great example of how it seems like Reserved List prices keep rising forever—and in a way, some of them do—but timing the market still matters so, so much. This current LED spike to $300 might seem super affordable in five years, when this card could be in the $500 range, but I'd still recommend holding off for another few months and waiting for the inevitable market correction. LED will probably bottom out around $200 at some point in the next year, and you'll be able to save quite a bit of dough as opposed to buying in now or during its next inevitable spike.
Some Reserved List cards spike hard, come down, and have yet to fully recover. For example, here's Drop of Honey, a card that actually had a few sales in the $800-$1,000 range back in 2018. That price was far too high, though, and most of the sales before and since have been in the $380-$450 range. It's quite likely that someone will try to force the issue with this card again at some point, maybe as soon as this week, but I wanted to include this one here because not all Reserved List cards ever return to their highest highs. Not yet, at least.
Lastly, here's Revised Tropical Island, one of the most stable cards on the whole Reserved List. Dual lands rarely seem to drop in price, but even the venerable Tropical Island has a slight dip and trough pattern going on. In its most extreme example, the card was averaging about $350 per copy back in early 2018, but you could pick them up for under $200 by that holiday season. This card might not drop below $300 again, but I'd still hold off for the moment if I were in the market.
Playability is part of the story with Reserved List cards—after all, you're not playing Legacy Storm without Lion's Eye Diamond—but collectability is part of the story too. Collectability is why a Shivan Dragon from Magic 2015 is $0.03, while a Shivan Dragon from Beta is $1,700. The card isn't particularly playable in any format, even Commander, but it's one of the most beautiful and iconic creatures of all time. Anyone whose imagination was captured by the glorious Dragon back in 1993 or 1994 wants to own an Alpha or Beta copy, and no reprint can ever scratch that itch.
On the other hand, I've heard a lot of people claim that most of the Reserved List cards that people already own won't drop in price even if the RL is abolished because of collectability. "Why would any Antiquities or Legends cards drop in price if they're reprinted?" the argument goes. "They might reprint Drop of Honey, but they can never print another original Arabian Nights copy of Drop of Honey."
Even if we assume that the Reserved List is in place forever, though, collectability still matters. It's one of the reasons why a lot of the Antiquities buyouts have worked, while a lot of the Ice Age and The Dark buyouts have not. Even though all Reserved List cards are pre-1998, they aren't all created equally from a collectability perspective.
Here are my rules of thumb for determining collectability:
The more essential a card is to tournament Magic, the less its price is probably tied to collectability. For example, Plague Sliver is essentially a functional reprint of Juzám Djinn, but the latter card is still very expensive due to the Old School community and collectability value. On the other hand, there are a lot of people out there who would probably love to replace their Revised dual lands with cheaper, functionally identical dual lands.
If there are multiple versions of a card, the premium versions are likely to remain expensive due to collectability while the cheapest version is going to be more tied to playability. For example, the people who have shelled out for a Beta copy of Wheel of Fortune aren't going to sell theirs if WotC reprints the card, but the same can't be said for people who own Revised copies. Some number of them enjoy the card primarily because it's cool and old, but most of them just want to cast Wheel of Fortune in a game of Commander, and the Revised copy is currently the cheapest, most accessible version.
Moving on, cards from the first six sets—Alpha, Beta, Unlimited, Arabian Nights, Antiquities and Legends—will always have collector's value simply due to age and scarcity. The Reserved List certainly helps buoy some of their value—for example, Unlimited Moxes would likely lose value if WotC printed new ones since there would be a new "cheapest Mox" option for folks who simply wanted to use them—but all of these cards are vanishingly scarce and part of history, no matter what.
On the flip side, there still isn't a lot of innate love for cards from The Dark, Homelands, Mirage, etc. These cards can have both collector's value and playability value, but owning them doesn't feel special in and of itself. There are some very expensive cards from these sets, but they don't currently have value-for-value's-sake like their siblings from the older, scarcer sets. This is why I'm skeptical of people's attempts to cause spikes in bottom-tier Reserved List cards. It's true that any piece of the Reserved List might become a collector's item someday, but I don't think we're there yet. If you're going to do this, I'd consider it a long-term play.
That said, I'm also somewhat skeptical of the idea that Reserved List cards will just keep on increasing in collector's value forever and ever. While some collectibles do behave this way, like vintage comic books and sports cards, others see a large rise and then a slow fall as the target audience either passes away or moves on. This happens a lot in vintage toy collecting, and video games are even experiencing this to some degree, as newer GameCube and N64 games surge in price while older NES collecting has become more stagnant. Magic might be immune from this, but it also might not be. As the generation of players who initially coveted these cards leave the game behind, will there be enough collectors who care about obscure Arabian Nights cards (or whatever) left to lead toward higher and higher spikes? I don't know, but it's something I've been thinking about for the past few years, and it makes me wonder if most RL cards have already seen their highest highs.
I've been writing weekly Magic: The Gathering finance articles for over a decade now, and Reserved List discourse has been a part of it since the very beginning. I've probably written at least one Reserved List article every year since 2012, and that streak isn't going to end any time soon. If you're new to the game, imagine the "we want fetch lands NOW" conversation lasting longer than multiple presidential administrations, and you'll start to get the idea.
Here's the thing about the Reserved List: it's functionally irrelevant to something like 95% of people who play Magic right now. The only formats where Reserved List cards are even legal are Vintage, Legacy and Commander. Let's talk about each in turn.
First, Commander. Personally, I think proxies should become much more normalized in casual formats, especially if there's a wide financial disparity in your playgroup. The Reserved List seems more like a symptom than a cause here, as there are hundreds of top-tier Commander cards that cost $50+. Even recently reprinted but still pricey cards like Mana Crypt and Doubling Season have a far greater outcome on a game of Commander than Bayou or Underground Sea, and abolishing the Reserved List isn't going to change the fact that some players can afford these cards and some cannot.
A lot of people are mistrustful of proxies because they seem akin to counterfeiting, but that's only if you do it very, very wrong. Counterfeits are intended to deceive, and they should be destroyed on sight before some poor rube ends up paying $500 for a worthless piece of cardboard. Proxies are clear and obvious, and I've never been a part of a playgroup that hasn't been fine with them to at least some degree. It makes sense that you'd have to shell out for the real card before playing in a tournament, but at your kitchen table, who cares? Nobody gets mad if you lose the deed to Park Place in Monopoly and scrawl one out on a piece of cardboard, right? If you've got a money-bags friend who sticks a Gaea's Cradle in his Commander deck, it's time to grab a Forest and a sharpie.
Second, Vintage. Very few people play the format at all these days, even on Magic Online where you can buy pieces of the Power Nine for less than $10. Whenever there is a tabletop Vintage event, it almost always allows some number of proxies as a matter of course. If you want to proxy all the Reserved List cards in your deck, you probably can. There's still a financial barrier of entry here, but it's not as tied to the Reserved List as it seems, and abolishing the Reserved List wouldn't change that—especially since it would probably just lead to WotC printing $500 Mox Boxes or whatever.
Lastly, Legacy. I think there was a case to be made that abolishing the Reserved List in 2013 or so would have helped revitalize the Legacy scene and allowed it to continue thriving during a period of open decline, but those days are long gone now. There are very, very few major national Legacy tournaments these days, and I don't know if the abolition of the Reserved List would be enough to turn this around so completely. The truth of the matter is that very few top Legacy decks require more than four to five Reserved List cards, and this has been true for years. The current Temur Delver build needs a total of six dual lands and one copy of Null Rod. Snowko runs a total of three dual lands and no other Reserved List cards. Duals are also fairly replaceable in these decks if you just want to play, but very few people go this route simply because there aren't a lot of people looking to get into Legacy at this point, period.
"But Cassie!" I can hear you saying. "If dual lands and other Reserved List cards were cheap, they I'd play Legacy! The only problem with Legacy is that the decks are way too expensive, and more affordable decks would lead to more people becoming invested in the format."
To which I say: yes! That argument is more or less correct. I think the abolishment of the Reserved List would be a good thing for Legacy as a whole, and it might not even be a bad thing for folks who are heavily invested in the format, since other, non-Reserved List staples would spike in response to the increase in demand. In fact, nearly all of the Legacy players I know support ditching the Reserved List ASAP because they care more about the health of the community than the value of their card collection.
Unfortunately, abolishing the Reserved List would probably not meaningfully change the Legacy calculus for most Magic players. Take Mana Crypt, a card that is somewhat analogous to key Reserved List staples like Gaea's Cradle and Underground Sea. WotC has now reprinted Mana Crypt as a mythic rare in three different sets, and it's still hard to find a copy for less than $100. Before this latest reprint, it was hard to find a copy for less than $200. Will more people play Legacy if Underground Sea was $200 instead of $400? Probably. Will it matter to you, dear reader? Probably not.
In fact, I'd argue that the Reserved List is somewhat helpful for anyone who has the means to invest in Legacy but doesn't feel like they can afford to light several thousand dollars on fire. Think of it this way: if you make a bunch of successful spec sales and raise the $400 you need to snag a moderately played Underground Sea, you've just locked your profits up in a card that's practically guaranteed to hold its value. If you want to quit Legacy later on, you'll probably be able to get your money back. But if Underground Sea was $200 and WotC could reprint it any time they wanted? That's a much different—and much worse—gamble. In fact, it's a gamble that most value-conscious people can't really justify, leaving Legacy in the hands of people for whom losing $200 here and there isn't that big a deal. Heck, if WotC abolished the Reserved List tomorrow, I'd probably sell my dual lands ASAP, as would many other long-time players. Who knows if we'd ever be able to justify buying back in?
I'm not saying that the Reserved List is good, actually—it has been a frustrating and harmful rule over the years, and it should have been relegated to the trash heap a decade ago. I just think that the vast majority of the people championing its abolishment are actually mad about how WotC supports and enables Magic's lucrative secondary market, something that Reserved List abolition wouldn't change. The real problem here is that WotC needs $100+ cards to exist in order to justify selling Masters packs and VIP boosters and Secret Lairs and the rest of it. If you want Eternal formats to be more accessible, this is the model that actually needs to change.
As we've discussed at length this week, it was a Very Reserved List Christmas this week. A partial list of spikes includes Khabál Ghoul, Paradigm Shift, Old Man of the Sea, Ragnar, Firestorm, Eladamri, Lord of Leaves, Opalescence, Dream Halls, Well of Knowledge, Weakstone, Elephant Graveyard, Golgothian Sylex, Pixie Queen, Ring of Ma'rûf, Mox Diamond, Tetsuo Umezawa, Gravity Sphere, Telekinesis, Divine Intervention, Undiscovered Paradise, Tithe, Apocalypse Chime, Storm World, Army of Allah, Knowledge Vault, Mana Matrix, Mind Over Matter and Academy Rector. Any Reserved List cards that haven't spiked yet will probably spike in the coming days, and you should be looking to sell your spare Reserved List cards into this spike if you can. You can always buy back in later, when things settle down.
If you're looking for things to speculate on right now, I recommend Double Masters pack foils. As this thread correctly points out, there are only a few dollars separating these cards from their non-foil brethren, in large part because the community is currently focusing on the Showcase and VIP Showcase versions of these cards. The pack foils are scarcer than their current price implies, however, and they're solid long-term buys at the moment. If you're looking to pick up Double Masters cards right now, this is where I'd focus on.
Other than that, it might be time to take another look at the Power Nine. These cards tend to lag a few weeks behind the other Reserved List cards during a period of intense spikes, but they always seem to perk up once people realize, "Wait a minute, if Lion's Eye Diamond and Gaea's Cradle are worth X, then why is Mox Emerald only worth Y?" Granted, there probably aren't a lot of you who have the means or desire to throw a few grand at a Mox or a Lotus right now, but if you are in the market and you've been holding off, this is a good time to act.