Hi there, fellow trainers! My name is Cassie LaBelle, and I'm a weekly columnist here on TCGplayer Infinite, where I usually write about financial movement and market trends in the world of Magic: The Gathering. I've also been a fan of the Pokémon franchise for many years, going all the way back to playground duels and colorful Gameboy cartridges.
I'm here today because the vintage Pokémon TCG market has been going absolutely buck wild for the past few weeks. Card prices are so out of control, it's getting to the point where friends of mine who don't even know the difference between Pikachu and Electabuzz are thinking about picking up a First Edition Blastoise or three! That's why I'm here: to help give you a Pidgey's eye view of what's been happening in the world of vintage Pokémon TCG finance, why we're in this place, and what's likely to happen next.
The seeds for this boom were actually planted late last year, thanks to Instagram entrepreneur/influencer Gary Vaynerchuk. He's been extolling the virtues of high-end sports card collecting to his eight million followers for a while now, and this push really started to pay off at the start of the pandemic. Sports card collecting became fairly passe in the mid-nineties, thanks in large part to a glut of premium products, but Vaynerchuk's focus on sealed boxes, graded cards, and hyper-limited-run products gave the hobby a brand-new allure in 2020. I have to believe that the circumstances of the pandemic also helped: as the stock market tumbled and people began yearning for simpler times, the allure of an investment vehicle that was equal parts tangible and nostalgic became too much to ignore.
Six months later, the sports card boom made the jump to Pokémon. That was mostly the result of another powerful influencer: Logan Paul.
I know, I know—it seems weird that one random internet man can get really into Pokémon cards and change the market forever, but that's basically what happened. Whether you like him or not, it's undeniable that Logan Paul and other high-profile YouTubers have an enormous influence on popular culture. Logan Paul's 1st Edition Base Set unboxing charity stream early last month reached 300,000 concurrent viewers, and the VOD currently has nearly ten million views. This isn't Paul's only dalliance into Pokémon, either—he's been buying high-end boxes and cards for a while now, and it has become a major focus of his channel in recent days.
It's not just Logan Paul, either—it's the ripple effect. There are a lot of other popular YouTube channels that chase the latest trends, and if Paul is drawing millions of viewers to his Pokémon unboxing videos, that's what they'll do, too. Logan Paul's interest also legitimizes high-end Pokémon cards as a luxury good and status symbol, which leads to things like rapper Logic dropping $184,000 on a graded First Edition Charizard. His stream also massively increases demand for lower-end (but still impressive) vintage Pokémon cards from fans of these channels, who simply want a little slice of the pie so that they can feel included.
The result? A massive spike in the vintage Pokémon market, especially over the past 4-6 weeks.
Right now, nearly all the spikes are happening among Pokémon TCG's oldest and most expensive booster packs and cards. It already costs as much as a small house to buy a sealed booster box of First Edition Base Set, and that's in large part because there are very few of those packs left in the world. These are the packs that you need to open if you want 300,000 people to watch your YouTube channel, and they're also the packs you need to buy if you want to open a $184,000 Charizard.
Other old booster packs and boxes are spiking as well. Unlimited Base Set booster boxes are an order of magnitude less valuable than the First Edition ones, but even they have more than doubled in price over the past few weeks. Other old expansions are following along, though be aware that there were significantly more boxes of Jungle out there than even Base Set Unlimited. Again, this makes sense—opening old boxes of Pokémon cards is an exciting gamble with the chance for some truly absurd pulls, complete with the ability to show off your unboxing on social media.
The other major market mover right now? High-end graded cards. We'll get more into this a little later in the article, but needless to say, the most expensive Pokémon cards vary in price quite a bit based on their condition. You might have a First Edition Charizard of your own, but it won't be worth $184,000 unless it has been professionally graded and received the highest possible score. If you have a highly graded rare holofoil First Edition Base Set Pokémon card in your collection right now, it has almost certainly spiked in value over the past month.
Past that, things are a little spottier. People are also snapping up good Pokémon cards with the potential to receive high grades, so there's a growing gulf on TCGplayer between the prices for Near Mint cards and the same cards in worse condition. Most of the people pumping money into this spike haven't been a part of the Pokémon TCG community for quite some time, so if you're plugged into which of these older cards are "good," you'll probably have to slip on your nostalgia goggles before predicting the next big spike. As a rule of thumb, it's really just the Wizards of the Coast era (pre-2003) cards that are spiking right now, so your 3rd-generation-and-newer cards haven't seen much movement yet. That might change in the future, though!
First, get comfortable with the idea that 99.9% of your Pokémon cards aren't going to be worth much of anything. If your cards are too new, they're not particularly valuable. Ditto for cards that aren't in great condition. Even beyond that, 99% of the value in your collection is going to come from 1% of your cards. There's a reason why the truly expensive cards are worth so much: they're exceedingly rare. People aren't going to pay very much for your tattered box of heavily played commons.
That said, it's always worth looking up rare cards. You can tell which cards are rare by checking out the rarity symbol in the lower right corner. Circles are common, diamonds uncommon, and stars are rare. Most of the best cards also have holofoil treatments, which is pretty obvious to see when you look at the art. If a card is holographic, just look it up. You might be surprised by what you'll find!
Next up, you have to consider each card's expansion symbol. Most of the current spikes are cards from Pokémon's base set, which means that cards with expansion symbols are by and large not moving in price yet. That doesn't mean that these slightly newer cards are valueless—some are still casually worth hundreds of dollars—but it's a lot less likely.
The expansion symbol is just below the card frame, on the right-hand side. Check out this Charizard from Base Set 2. You can see the expansion symbol—it's that little check mark and Pokeball just below the art:
This version of Charizard hasn't seen the kinds of spikes that the other one has, but it's still gotten pretty frisky over the past few months, unlike most of the other cards from Base Set 2. Here's its price chart from the start of August through Friday:
Compare that to Snorlax, a less iconic card. Here's what's happened to foil copies of Snorlax from Base Set 2 over the past few months:
Much calmer, and much lower value overall. Someone did buy a whole bunch of Snorlaxes on September 25th, likely as a speculative buy, but otherwise? This card is still mostly selling in the $2-$3 range, compared to Charizard's $400+.
If you look at a Pokémon card and don't see an expansion symbol, that means that it's probably from the original Base Set. Now we might be getting into some serious value! Here's what an Unlimited Base Set Charizard looks like:
As you can see, the place where the expansion symbol would be is blank. Here's what the Base Set Unlimited Charizard has been doing for the past three months:
Yeah. These were pretty easy to find in the $200 range back in August, but now they sell for $400-$600 pretty easily. Most Unlimited Base Set cards still aren't worth all that much, but the most iconic rares (like Venusaur, Blastoise, and Charizard) are spiking pretty hard right now.
Some of the other rares from this set have started to follow along as well. For instance, here's what's happening to Base Set Unlimited Chansey right now:
It's absurd. A formerly $10-$15 card is currently selling for $55, and its price is still rising. This is why I'm writing this article right now.
Of course, not all Base Set cards are created equal. Some of the earliest Base Sets cards are "shadowless," which means that the little drop shadow on the art picture is missing. Here's a side-by-side example of a regular Unlimited Charizard and a shadowless Charizard:
Do you see it? It's the little dark shadow just to the right of the gold border surrounding the art itself.
All Shadowless cards are worth looking up, by the way. These cards are incredibly scarce, and even commons and uncommons can be worth a decent amount of money.
Lastly, we've got the holy grails: first edition shadowless cards. Take a look:
As you can see, there's no expansion symbol and no drop shadow, but there is a little first edition marker on the lower left side of the art box. These cards are among the rarest in all of Pokémon, and they all have value, even the most common cards in the set. The minimum you'll get for one of these Charizards right now is probably in the $2,000 range, with the best possible graded Charizard selling for a whopping $184,000 to Logic a few weeks ago. You probably don't have one of these hiding in the back of your closet, but if you do, big congratulations.
It's also worth noting that other expansions also have first edition markers. You might have first edition cards from Jungle, or Base Set 2, or Team Rocket, etc. These cards aren't the holy grail that Base Set First Edition cards are, but they're still likely to be worth more than un-marked cards from those expansions. Sometimes they can be worth quite a bit more!
If you're having trouble looking up a card because, say, there have been ten million Pikachus printed over the years, make sure you reference the little set number in the lower right corner of the card. (It's right next to the rarity symbol.) Between the foiling process, set number, expansion symbol, and knowledge of first edition cards, you should be able to ID all of your Pokémon cards on TCGplayer's interface. It can take a while for some of the more popular Pokémon, but it's important to get it right.
Graded cards are selling for quite a bit more than ungraded cards, so it can be really tempting to think about sending all your rare Pokémon cards in for grading. In my experience, however, this can be a big mistake. Grading costs money, and in many cases it won't actually make your card worth more. The only reason to get your card graded is to increase its value, so be smart about this.
A card needs to meet two criteria in order for me to even think about getting it graded:
I rarely want to grade cheap cards, because the potential payout isn't worth the cost. People aren't going to pay up for graded budget rares unless they have an absurdly high grade, and you simply can't count on that—even if the card looks mint. If you send in your cheap rare and it comes back with a grade under 8 or 9, then you've basically just wasted a bunch of money.
Second, it's rarely worth grading cards that have visible wear. If your grade comes back too low, your market will be lower than it would be if you'd just sold it as-is. An ungraded card is full of potential to buyers—who knows, it might actually grade out okay! A poorly-graded card is just a poorly-graded card.
If you're not used to card grading, know that it's pretty harsh. You can pull a card right out of a booster pack with gloves and stick it in a sleeve and send it to the grading company and it is still wildly unlikely to come back at a 10.0, the highest possible grade. Cards can get scuffs in the pack. The art might not be properly centered. The printing might have been light. There's so much going on here that you're really just asking for it by sending cards in with visible wear to be graded.
That said, there is some risk to selling ungraded cards as near mint right now. Buyers are usually okay with a few really tiny issues on a NM card, but right now there are a lot of folks buying up all the NM cards on TCGplayer with the hopes of getting them graded and flipping them at a profit. That means more nitpicking than ever before.
In the end, I'd treat value and condition as the two axes on a scatter chart. The more valuable a card, the more interested I am in grading it, even if there are slight condition issues. The cheaper a card, the more perfect it has to look.
For the most part, this market surge has been driven by collectors, not players. The folks opening $200,000 booster boxes aren't looking to break out their cards on the kitchen table, nor are the people who are getting half their collection graded and locked away in hard plastic cases.
That said, there is a small but growing community of people who are dedicated to making "Old School" Pokémon a thing. The most popular variant of this format includes the first three sets—Base Set, Fossil, and Jungle—along with the first five black star promos. Other iterations of the format include sets up through Gym Heroes.
A similar movement happened in Magic: The Gathering a few years back, and "Old School" Magic has been one of the largest drivers of value among that game's oldest sets. It's possible that the same might happen in the world of Pokémon, too. For example, here's what has happened to the price of Pokémon Breeder over the past few months:
As you can see, both price and demand have picked up in recent weeks. Pokémon Breeder isn't that exciting for collectors, but it's quite a powerful card when you're actually playing the game. Other old trainer cards, as well as heavily played versions of powerful Pokémon like Venusaur and Blastoise, have started to rise in price as well. This is likely due as much to the growing Old School community as it is to the Logan Paul-adjacent collectors.
It's unclear whether Old School Pokémon will really catch on, or if it will die out like so many other homebrew TCG formats before it. But these cards are on their way up right now, and if you ever want to play this format, this could be your last chance to pick these cards up at a discount.
The highest-end Pokémon cards are probably going to remain expensive for quite some time. A PSA 10 1st Edition Charizard has more in common with an issue of Action Comics #1 or a Mickey Mantle Rookie card than with any of the Pokémon cards you can buy down at your local comic shop, and I can't imagine we'll see these highest end cards drop off a cliff anytime soon. Logic's $180,000 investment is probably safe.
Other than that? Pokémon cards are probably in some sort of bubble right now. Base Set Chansey won't just keep rising in price forever, and it's pretty clear that the market is being driven by Logan Paul and other social media influencers in a way that won't last. Influencers and YouTubers will move on to something else at some point—maybe another collectable, or maybe something else entirely. When that happens, a lot of the people who are currently obsessed with Pokémon cards will move on as well.
Of course, "are Pokémon cards a bubble?" might not be the most important question right now. I think it's better to ask how far along in the bubble we are. Bitcoin was pretty clearly a bubble the first time it hit $5,000, but you still could have bought in at that rate and made quite a bit of money over the coming months. Bubble economies can be very profitable as long as you buy on the way up and sell near the top.
My personal feeling is that the vintage Pokémon bubble is still going to be expanding for a while. The market has really only started moving over the past 4-5 weeks, and many lower-end cards haven't spiked yet. I've seen similar bubbles happen in the Magic: the Gathering market, and they tend to last for at least 3-4 months. This one might last even longer, since this kind of bubble has never really happened to vintage Pokémon before.
Does that mean that every vintage Pokémon card will spike in price for 4 months straight? No. It simply means that different cards will probably begin to spike every couple of days for the rest of 2020. If you're looking to invest, try to focus on cards that haven't really started to get going yet. Pretty much every holofoil rare from the first few expansions is worth considering, as are all First Edition cards.
As with all speculative buys, the important thing is to only take risks that you're comfortable making. The general economy is struggling right now, and at the end of the day we are still talking about spending a lot of money on Pokémon cards. The market might keep rising for a few more months at least—I expect it will—but things are far from certain. Be smart, do the research, and remember: it's better to sell a little early than a little late.