Ah, the Reserved List: that most foul of discourse topics. Loved by some, hated by most. Long-prophesied to be on the brink of death, but still alive and kicking. Our old friend The Reserved List has turned Legacy into a niche activity, made Vintage impossible to play, and caused a lot of eyebrows to hit the ceiling whenever that one player in your Commander playgroup starts the game by dropping, like, $1,500 in Dual Lands onto the table by turn three.
The Reserved List also doesn't appear to be going away any time soon.
First off, here's what today's article is NOT about:
Instead of getting into any of this, today's goal is to simply talk about how to make the Reserved List work for your bank account. Since the list seems to be here to stay, why not use it to your advantage instead of fighting against its continued existence? Worst case scenario, WotC abolishes the dang thing anyway and we all get what we wanted.
Today, I'll be approaching the Reserved List from a quick-flip perspective, a long-term investing perspective, and the perspective of someone who just wants to own a couple of RL cards but feels intimidated by the entire process. We'll talk about competitive Reserved List staples, casual RL gems, and those weird random Reserved List cards that spike every couple of years. Oh — and I'll give you a couple of underrated Reserved List cards that might be worth picking up at some point over the next couple of weeks.
Excited? Me too! Let's get to it.
The first thing to remember about Reserved List cards is that they're all incredibly old. The most recent set to include Reserved List cards, Urza's Destiny, was released in June of 1999. That's more than two decades ago now, and it might as well be an eternity in CCG time. How many copies of anything that was manufactured 20 to 30 years ago are still available on the market? Over time, items get damaged, destroyed, or simply socked away in binders and closets. Even as prices rise, the number of readily available copies of any given Reserved List card likely dwindles with each passing year.
Magic: the Gathering has also grown a lot over the past two or three decades. Far fewer people were playing back then, and a new set release the size of Urza's Destiny would sell out in minutes. Even if every copy of Metalworker and Academy Rector ever printed were put back on the market today, it wouldn't be nearly enough to meet demand. The price would remain incredibly high.
Magic design was also in a much different place from 1993 to 1999 than it is today. The late 90s was a world where Morphling was widely considered the most powerful creature ever printed, yet WotC was churning out cards like Yawgmoth's Will and Grim Monolith on a pretty regular basis. This gives many Reserved List cards something of a mythical quality, and it forces you to deal with the RL if you want to play many of the game's most iconic broken spells. The fact that these spells are often required when playing the most exciting decks in Vintage and Legacy only serves to keep demand incredibly high.
The Reserved List also creates value due to the promise of the list itself. Think about it this way: if you have $100 to spend on a Magic card, wouldn't you rather own a card that will never be reprinted (and might keep increasing in value) than a card that WotC could throw in a $30 Secret Lair or Masters set next week? I sure would, and if enough people agree with me, then the $100 Reserved List card will continue to gain value while the $100 non-RL card drops in price.
Buying the Reserved List card over a non-RL card has nearly always proven to be the right call, too. For instance, take a look at the price chart for Gaddock Teeg from 2015 through the end of September 2018:
Pretty great chart, right? You've got a card increasing in price from under $10 to over $50 in just a few years, thanks to strong eternal play and no reprint. With the way Gaddock Teeg was dominating Modern at the time, it seemed like the sky was the limit for this two-mana creature.
Now take a look at Gaddock Teeg's chart from 2015 through today:
Yeah. You can blame this drop on shifts in the metagame if you want, but demand has been consistently higher since Gaddock Teeg was reprinted than it was beforehand. I like using Teeg as an example, because it's so clear just how much a single reprint tanked the price. That's great for anyone who didn't own a set of Gaddock Teeg beforehand, but disastrous for anyone who bought in at $55 in September of 2018.
Now take a look at Gilded Drake's price chart from the start of 205 through September of 2018:
Gilded Drake wasn't as cheap as Gaddock Teeg was at the start of 2015, but it was roughly the same price by autumn of 2018. It had recently experienced the sort of jump that Reserved List cards take from time to time, but had more or less stabilized around $55.
Here's what Gilded Drake has done if we zoom out the chart to include everything from 2015 through today:
...This comparison isn't entirely fair, of course. I chose it because the cards had comparable prices in September 2018 and wildly divergent outcomes after that. If Gilded Drake were reprinted in a Masters set today, it would still be worth a lot more than Gaddock Teeg because Gilded Drake sees far more play in a much more popular format. Still, I think this chart does a great job of showing off the appeal of Reserved List investing. Not only do you not have to worry about absolutely backbreaking reprints, but you can dream about this sort of $300 to $500 upside with whatever you buy.
There is one last thing that adds value to some Reserved List cards, and it's becoming a bigger and bigger deal over time. Since the Reserved List encompasses many of Magic's earliest sets, many of these cards have value to collectors simply because of what they represent about Magic history. Collectors often want the earliest possible printings of iconic cards, and they want them in the best possible condition. This is true across the entire spectrum of card collecting, from mid-century baseball cards to the Pokémon TCG to Magic: The Gathering. This is why you can buy a Revised Underground Sea for less than a thousand bucks, but you're not finding an Alpha copy for under ten grand.
Some have argued that repealing the Reserved List wouldn't affect prices because of collectability, but that's only true for cards from sets like Alpha, Beta, Legends, and Antiquities. Cards like Gilded Drake, Grim Monolith, and even the Revised Dual Lands would see their value plunge if the Reserved List was repealed, especially cards in less than NM condition. This is why it's important to recognize which Reserved List cards are more expensive due to collector value, and which are more expensive due to the fact that they're incredibly powerful cards that haven't been reprinted in several decades.
If you want to safeguard your Reserved List investments even further, graded (or gradable-quality) cards from Magic's first two years stand the strongest chance of maintaining the most value for decades to come. Even if WotC eventually does reprint Black Lotus, they'll never reprint Alpha Black Lotus. In fact, Alpha and Beta cards have seen a massive surge in price over the past few years for exactly this reason, unrelated to the Reserved List as a whole. (This, however, is a topic for another article.)
To summarize: why are Reserved List cards so dang expensive? Because they haven't been printed in forever, they weren't printed in massive quantities to begin with, they aren't going to be printed again anytime soon, and they encompass many of the most powerful and collectable cards in the history of the game.
Now that we know what we're dealing with, let's figure out how to best buy in.
Believe it or not, the Reserved List market doesn't just go up in price forever and ever and ever. Remember that Gilded Drake chart? The card actually peaked at $500 back in early February of this year, and it has plummeted below $300 since. That's a substantial decrease in price.
Most Reserved List ebbs and flows are a bit more subtle. Take a look at this chart for Grim Monolith from the start of 2018 through today:
That's a pretty recognizable pattern of peaks and valleys. The first "peak" is in April of 2018, then it bottoms out in January 2019, then there's another peak in May of 2019, then a drop in early March of 2020. (Remember what that month was like? No wonder the price was down!), Then, we see a peak in May of 2020, then a dip in November of 2020, then a peak in April of 2021 — and now it's back down again.
What can we learn from this chart? Well, to me, it looks like Reserved List cards obey a pretty strong seasonal trend. They tend to spend most of the year dropping in price, bottoming out somewhere in the middle of winter, before peaking again in April or May. It also appears as if Reserved List cards do gain value year-over-year, just not in a linear fashion. This also tracks with my experience of tracking this market over the past decade plus. Isn't it nice when data backs up your gut feelings?
I'll be talking more about seasonal price trends in Magic next week, but needless to say, Reserved List prices tend to follow the overall market for eternal staples. These cards tend to drop in price all summer and bottom out in the dead of winter before increasing in price in February, March, April, and May. I've long believed that this has a lot to do with how spring is tax return season in the US, and a lot of collectors and players use this temporary windfall to snag cards that they wouldn't have been able to buy otherwise. The US government stimulus checks in 2020 and early 2021 also had a similar effect on the market, further bolstering this theory.
Reserved List cards tend to behave more like an echo chamber than other eternal staples, though. When Snapcaster Mage jumps in price, folks don't run out and buy copies of Stoneforge Mystic unless they happen to both be seeing play in the same new hot deck. When a card like Gaea's Cradle or Gilded Drake jumps in price, however, suddenly all the other Reserved List cards are put on notice.
The psychology behind this herding effect is pretty clear. If Snapcaster Mage explodes in price, you can always shrug your shoulders and vow to buy in the next time it shows up in a Masters set or Secret Lair. Since Reserved List cards are never going to be reprinted, though, it's incredibly easy to look at a spike and say, "Oh my gosh, this is my last chance to ever own this card for a remotely reasonable price! I'd better buy in now!" Because of that, Reserved List spikes almost always lead to more and more Reserved List spikes. Before long, the entire Reserved List is shooting up in price — even those random little cards from Mirage and Weatherlight that nobody even really wants. Nobody wants to miss out on the "last chance" to own any of these cards, after all.
As you can see from the above chart, however, buying in at the peak of the late spring spike is never a good idea. You might come out okay in the long run, since RL cards do tend to increase in price year-over-year, but buying Reserved List cards in December of January is going to be a better call in 99% of cases. You always want to be zigging when the market is zagging, and the Reserved List is no exception. If you think you're going to want to own any of these cards when they inevitably start to spike again next spring, either pick them up now or wait until next December.
Since this is a question that comes up now and again, let's talk about whether or not early 2021 represented the absolute apex for many of these Reserved List staples. Here's the case for Reserved List cards having peaked for good:
March 2020 through mid-2021 was a unique time in our history. While the pandemic is still ongoing, and most large Magic events are still on a seemingly eternal hiatus, the pre-vaccine lockdowns were something else entirely. The lack of events made it nearly impossible for larger vendors to buy Reserved List cards from attendees, so the available supply dried up fast. At the same time, adults with stable work-from-home jobs (largely in tech) suddenly found themselves trapped inside with no ability to spend money on bars, restaurants, travel, etc. With excess cash (including government stimulus checks for some) and no ability to play Magic in-person, many players decided that it was finally time to pick up those Reserved List staples they'd had their eyes on for years.
Cryptocurrencies also did very well in 2020 and early 2021. I don't touch the stuff myself for various ethical reasons, but most of the folks I know who dabbled in crypto during this period made a lot of money. Not only was this particular demographic flush with crypto cash, but the hobby of card collecting (especially graded card collecting) absolutely exploded among this audience. Magic was less of a target than Pokémon and sports card collecting, but rising tides lift all boats, and I have no doubt that hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of crypto has been converted into Reserved List staples over the past few years.
Things look a bit different here on the threshold of 2022. Crypto has been more of a mixed bag lately, we're well past the era of stimulus checks, and many folks are traveling and going out again despite the continued risks. The sports card market is way down from where it was at its 2020 peak, as is the vintage Pokémon market. Both are still far higher than their pre-boom prices, but it may be a while, if ever, before they get back to where they were a year or so ago. It's quite possible that the Reserved List will be a lot more mixed going forward, too.
So. Will the same seasonal trends that have bolstered Reserved List prices for the past decade cause another surge in spring of 2022, or will there be a multi-year hangover from the unique financial environment of 2020 and 2021? I honestly don't know. My best guess is that there will be another rally in spring of 2022, but it will be smaller than the past few years. I do know that buying into Reserved List cards this year is probably a tad riskier than in previous winters, but I still think it's likely to pay off over a long enough timeframe. As long as you're willing to be somewhat patient, it's really hard to lose with these cards. That's the beauty of the Reserved List: even at its riskiest, it's still a safer investment than almost anything else in the world of Magic.
As with anything in Magic, not all Reserved List investments are created equally. For instance, the Revised Dual Lands are incredibly robust investments because they're slam-dunk staples in Vintage, Legacy, Commander, and pretty much any other corner-case format where they are legal to play. A card like Peacekeeper is going to fluctuate in price a lot more, because nearly all demand for this card is wrapped up in the Legacy Death & Taxes deck. A card like Conch Horn is going to be maximally swingy, because it doesn't actually see play in anything. Therefore, all of its value is wrapped up in the fact that it's a card on the Reserved List for some reason.
This is all quite clear if you take a peep at the price charts. Here's Revised Tundra:
And Conch Horn:
The more stable a card is, the less awful it is to buy in at or near a peak. There has never been a time when buying a Revised Tundra would have been a spectacularly bad decision, but buying a card like Peacekeeper or Conch Horn at the top of the market could have gone very poorly. Keep this in mind as you make your buying decisions, and don't fall victim to Reserved List FOMO.
It's also worth selling your lesser Reserved List cards into hype when you have the opportunity. If you bought a Tundra at any point, you're probably not regretting holding onto it past its assumed peak last spring simply because of how stable and useful it is. The same isn't true for either Peacekeeper or Conch Horn, both of which are worth a lot less now. When cards like this spike, just sell them ASAP and worry about the rest later. Chances are, you'll be able to acquire them for a lot less at some point in the future.
These charts are also a great reminder that literally any card on the Reserved List has a shot at exploding in price the next time there's an RL market surge. Conch Horn literally went from less than a buck to $15+ simply because it's on the Reserved List, and for no other reason. The card is easy enough to snag for $3 right now. If you're patient enough, you'll definitely be able to sell it to someone for $10+ again in the future. It might be a stupid card, but it's on the Reserved List, and that's enough.
I actually like Peacekeeper as an investment right now, funnily enough. I have my eye on the card because Death & Taxes is a top five deck in Legacy that doesn't require any other Reserved List cards — just this one. While Legacy doesn't move markets the way it used to, my guess is that it'll be one of the first to spike this coming spring if there's another Reserved List surge.
Before we conclude this article, let's talk about a couple of Reserved List cards that look like potentially solid investments right now. The Reserved List has been mined for underrated specs a million times by now, and I'm not going to uncover any $1 cards that should be $50 in this piece. Instead, I'd like to focus on known quantities that have seen a large dip in price for whatever reason. These are the cards that seem most likely to return their investment at some point over the next couple of Reserved List spike cycles.
Retribution of the Meek
This one's simple. Retribution of the Meek is a solid Commander staple that sees play in several of the format's most interesting decks. It has spiked to $20 a couple of times over the past few years, and you can snag it for less than $9 right now. A solid low-ceiling, high-floor deal for anyone with a little patience!
Noticing a pattern? Here's another absurd Commander staple that plays well with all sorts of decks, especially the cool graveyard nonsense we've seen out of sets like Innistrad recently. After peaking above $200 last spring, the card bottomed out at $80 late last month and has already begun to trend upward again. Get your copy near the bottom.
Hey, look, it's a similar trend to Volrath's Stronghold, only without much sign of a rebound yet. It'll come, though, and you can see demand start to pick up a little again at the extreme righthand edge of the graph. I don't think this one will end up too far above $100, but that range seems likely — and you can get in a lot cheaper right now.
Slivers spike in price every time WotC brings the tribe back into the game, either through reprints or brand-new cards. That will almost assuredly happen in 2022 or 2023 at the latest, at least through a Secret Lair or two. Sliver Queen was as high as $550 earlier this year, and she seems to have bottomed out around $250 right now. This is as much of a layup as any card in this article, providing you've got the cash to spend hanging around and you're okay potentially waiting a year or two to make a couple hundred bucks.
Let's end with one of my favorite Commander cards of all time: Treachery. This card was selling pretty steadily for $100+ earlier this year, and now it's back down to $60 or so. I think we've reached pretty close to the bottom on this one, and I expect it'll be back in the $100 range again within the next year or two. WotC certainly isn't going to print any more cards like this one!
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