If you hang around Magic players long enough, you will undoubtedly hear tales of the game's greatest villain. It isn't Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God, or Emrakul, the Promised End, or even Soul of New Phyrexia—it's something called the Reserved List.
What is the Reserved List? Put simply, it is a list of 572 cards that Wizards of the Coast has agreed never to reprint in any tournament-legal physical form. The list includes cards as old as Alpha, released in 1993, and as recent as Urza's Destiny, released in 1999. No new cards are being added to the list, and WotC has stated that no more cards will be removed from the list, either. For the foreseeable future, then, we're just stuck with 572 cards that can never be reprinted.
Looking at the Reserved List from a present-day perspective raises more questions than it answers. For one thing, the Reserved List includes Magic's most expensive and iconic card (Black Lotus), as well as some key Vintage and Legacy staples like the original Dual Lands and Gaea's Cradle. Many of these cards are also popular and highly sought-after in Commander, Magic's most popular format.
But most of the cards on the Reserved List are just… bad. For every Aluren or Grim Monolith, there are dozens of useless old rares like Polar Kraken and Dwarven Sea Clan. In fact, the vast majority of cards on the Reserved List would likely be considered bulk rares if they were printed for the first time today.
Why did WotC create this policy, and why is it still in place more than two decades later? Moreover, why does the community loathe it so much? Let's dive in.
It's hard to believe now, but Magic wasn't intended to be a game with a secondary market. The original idea was that everyone would buy a couple of starters, maybe a few boosters, and build a few decks to play between rounds of something crunchier at large gaming conventions. Cards like Black Lotus were deemed okay because the assumption was that one person in your playgroup might have one, and it would only come out every couple of games. Nobody thought players might go out and buy several copies of the best cards from friends and strangers.
As it happened, things played out a little differently. Magic was a runaway hit, and booster packs of its earliest sets sold out instantly as people kept buying more and more cards in the hopes of pulling the key cards they wanted for their decks. At that point in history, Magic was very much an indie game that was frantically struggling to scale up for demand. Over the next year or so, sets kept getting printed in greater and greater quantities, but there still weren't quite enough packs to go around.
By mid-1994, WotC finally had the resources to deal with the worldwide phenomenon that Magic had become. Revised Edition was showing up in game stores all over the country, and Fallen Empires packs proved far easier to find than any set beforehand. There was just one problem. Those earlier sets? They were full of super powerful cards that were nearly impossible to find anywhere. Cards like Arcades Sabboth and Carrion Ants (yes, really) had robust values on Magic's nascent secondary market. Players didn't just want Fallen Empires packs—they wanted a chance to crack chase cards from the sets they missed.
WotC's answer to this was to release a set called Chronicles, which was full of key cards from Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, and The Dark. This was Magic's first all-reprint set, and it would be their only all-reprint set until Modern Masters was released almost two full decades later. WotC hoped that releasing Chronicles as a white-bordered set would satisfy both the people clamoring for reprints and the people who took the time to collect all the old, hard-to-find sets. Unfortunately, it ended up satisfying exactly nobody.
The biggest problem with Chronicles was that it was overprinted. Seriously—you could find booster packs of this set hanging out on the shelves of game stores for years afterward, usually for cut-rate prices. Because of this, none of the cards in Chronicles ended up being worth more than fifty cents or a dollar for more than 15 years. I remember buying collections back in 2010 and more or less considering the entire set to be bulk.
Many of the players and collectors who shelled out for copies of City of Brass prior to Chronicles' release were livid. They felt totally betrayed by WotC, and saw no reason to continue engaging with Magic's secondary market if there was a chance that their prized investment would end up being worth $0.25 if WotC printed a second Chronicles set.
This level of frustration carried over to the wider community, where the idea of buying loads of booster packs in order to chase down a hot card suddenly seemed like a fool's errand. Why drop hundreds of dollars on packs if WotC was just going to reprint the card and allow everyone to get it for next to nothing? Why not just wait and buy the cards then? When Fourth Edition came around and also included a bunch of high-profile reprints that caused prices to tank, it was clear that something had to give.
At this point, Magic was barely two years old. Its future was very much uncertain, and there was no guarantee it wouldn't flame out as a schoolyard craze like Pogs or yo-yos. Responding to community backlash, WotC announced that the following cards would never be reprinted:
The whole idea of creating a public list—the now-hated Reserved List—was about transparency. WotC wanted to let the community know which cards from future sets would be ineligible for reprints in order to help people make their buying and collecting decisions. The list would be updated with every new Core Set, and players who owned those cards could rest assured that their collection value was safe.
At the time, the Reserved List was considered a positive thing, or at least a neutral thing, by most players. Back then, nearly all of the most expensive cards were still in the $30-$50 range, and $20 was close to the top end for everything that wasn't a Mox Ruby or a Black Lotus. The Reserved List wasn't about protecting the value of $1,000 cards back then—it was about protecting the value of $20 cards that most enfranchised players either owned or could easily justify owning. It helped keep the secondary market going, and kept the allure of opening booster packs high. Even looking back, it's easy to see why WotC did this, and why it was initially successful.
The Reserved List worked more or less as intended for the next several years, but it was starting to show its age by the turn of the 21st century. The WotC of 2002 was not the WotC of 1995, and it became pretty clear that current management found the Reserved List to be more of a burden than an advantage. After all, the Reserved List didn't just forbid reprints—it forbade WotC from printing cards that were functionally identical to reserved cards.
Consider Thunder Spirit, a 2/2 with first strike and flying for 1WW. This is a card that WotC would likely print at common or uncommon in sets to this day. Thanks to the Reserved List, however, they cannot ever print a card with this specific cost and set of abilities.
The dam finally broke in late September of 1999, when WotC announced that cards from Mercadian Masques and later would not be added to the Reserved List. This decree was buried in a larger announcement about changes to how WotC would be thinking about foils, white-bordered sets, foreign sets, and more. Nothing else was said until the spring of 2002, when WotC released two articles on their updated reprint policy. These included the following meaningful changes:
This is where we get our current list of 572. Why these cards? It's all the pre-Chronicles rares that weren't reprinted in Revised, Chronicles, or Fourth Edition, plus all the uncommons from Arabian Nights and Antiquities that weren't in those four sets, plus roughly 75% of all the rares that were printed in sets from Ice Age through Urza's Destiny. That's the list as it stands today.
We're not done with the history of Reserved List revisions, though. Throughout the early 2000s, WotC took advantage of a loophole that allowed them to reprint Reserved List cards as long as the reprints were foil. This was almost exclusively used for incredibly scarce Judge Program foils, though, like Gaea's Cradle and Wheel of Fortune. It was kind of a wink-wink thing that never really affected the value of Reserved List cards either way, so most people didn't think much about it.
Something changed in 2010, though. Aaron Forsythe had a now-legendary "secret meeting" with several top members of the Magic community including Star City Games' Ben Bleiweiss. The contents of that meeting are still unknown thanks to a strict non-disclosure agreement, but a month later Ben Bleiweiss wrote an article declaring that the Reserved List was effectively dead. This happened right around the time that WotC released mass-market products like product-hover id="78335" and product-hover id="77350", both of which contained foil copies of Reserved List cards. For a hot moment, it looked like the entire Reserved List would collapse as WotC printed foil copies of anything they wanted.
And then, less than a month after that Bleiweiss piece went live, WotC pulled a hard 180 and changed their reprint policy again. The 2010 Revised Reprint Policy basically said: our bad, we shouldn't have put all of these Reserved List cards in that Duel Deck or that From the Vault release, and from here on out the foil loophole is closed. WotC will not print any physical Reserved List card in a tournament legal form again. Period.
What happened? We'll probably never know, but it seems clear that Hasbro's legal team made a decree that overrode the wishes of WotC R&D. In the 12 years since, WotC has been remarkably tight-lipped about their reprint policy. Every few years, somebody (usually Mark Rosewater, via his blog) says something like "I hate the Reserved List, but it isn't going anywhere. Stop asking me about it."
And that's where things still stand. The creatives at WotC seem to hate the Reserved List, but it doesn't seem like they have any say in the matter. Nothing much has changed in the past decade, and nothing much will change in the next decade unless some higher-up at Hasbro changes their mind.
If you want to know why the community loathes the Reserved List, all you have to do is look at the price chart of Gaea's Cradle from 2010 through today:
This is an extreme example, of course, but it seems absurd that a policy to keep $20 cards from becoming $1 cards is now being used to keep $1,000 cards from becoming $100 cards.
How did prices get here? Ironically, it all started with the successor to Chronicles. In June of 2013, WotC released Modern Masters, their first all-reprint set since that white-bordered disaster back in 1995. Unlike Chronicles, however, Modern Masters was a runaway hit. The Magic community had roughly doubled in size every year over the previous several years, and Modern was the hottest format imaginable. Cards like Tarmogoyf and Cryptic Command had become nearly impossible to find in the few short years since they were printed, and Modern Masters was WotC's answer to "we need more copies of these cards that we definitely don't want back in Standard."
In order to prevent a Chronicles II, Modern Masters packs were severely limited in allocation and carried a premium price tag. Because of this scarcity, folks lined up for a chance to buy a booster box or earn a seat at a draft. Grand Prix Las Vegas, which used Modern Masters Sealed in its main event, shattered all attendance records at the time. (I was there. It was great!)
Of course, the success of Modern Masters led to more and more Masters sets. First there was one every two years, then every year, then multiple times per year. There were only so many expensive old cards that WotC could include in these sets, so nothing felt off-limits—not even cards from other recent Masters sets. Cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Tarmogoyf have shown up in multiple reprint sets already, and they will likely show up in plenty more of them going forward.
It is hard to overstate how big a sea change this was. From 1995 through 2012, very few cards were reprinted at all. There was a Core Set every year or two that had a couple of reprints, but it was usually just one or two high-profile cards and then a bunch of chaff. That was pretty much it, give or take the stray Duel Deck or From the Vault release. Then we got the Masters sets, and now reprints are everywhere. Between Secret Lairs, Collector Boosters, Masters sets, and other special sets like Jumpstart, it's rare to have a month go by without several high-profile reprints.
The Reserved List stands out like a sore thumb in a world where reprints are common. It's hard to explain to someone why we can reprint Sol Ring in every single Commander deck but Wheel of Fortune is off-limits forever. "Well, you see, there's this list of incredibly esoteric cards…"
Of course, the Reserved List also stands out to collectors and investors. It's very difficult to justify spending $200 on a card that can be reprinted tomorrow, especially since WotC has become so aggressive with their reprints in recent years. But spending $200 on a card that can never be reprinted again? That feels like a much safer decision. After all, even if your current deck building plans don't work out, you can always sell the card to someone else later without worrying about reprints tanking the price. It's not like there are going to be any more of them!
This leads to a FOMO (fear of missing out) cycle that goes something like this:
These Reserved List FOMO spikes tend to all happen at once. It isn't just one Reserved List card spiking: it's half-a-dozen each day for about a month. These spikes tend to happen in the late winter and early spring, perhaps due to tax refund season in the U.S., or perhaps just because that's when Magic tends to be at the height of its seasonal demand.
This trend was especially pronounced in the late winter and spring of 2021, likely due to a variety of additional factors. Optimism about the COVID vaccines and the reopening economy, a third round of stimulus checks, and a spike in cryptocurrency prices led to a deluge of money surging into the Magic market. A lot of it went right into Reserved List cards, creating some pretty serious spikes. Those prices are waning now, as usual, but they have not approached their pre-spike levels. I doubt they will before the next spike comes, either.
Does this mean that Reserved List cards are going to keep going up and up, forever and ever? It would be pretty unusual if that were to happen. All collectibles markets wax and wane, and I don't see why these cards would prove the exception to that rule. It is just hard for me to say "this is the top of the market, for real" when we've seen nothing but growth for over a decade now. The end will come eventually, but I don't want to pretend that I have any idea when that will be or what will cause it. Those circumstances are likely still unforeseen.
Since we don't know what happened back in 2010, it's hard to say whether or not abolishing the Reserved List is on the table, or ever will be. It's quite likely that the lawyers back then closed the book on any future Reserved List shenanigans, but we could be weeks away from some shift in management philosophy that will lead to the Reserved List disappearing forever. It's just impossible to say.
All detailed conversations about abolishing the Reserved List eventually come around to a legal concept called promissory estoppel, which seems to be the battleground upon which any legal fight over the Reserved List would be fought. The basic idea is that a promise (like "we will never reprint these cards") can be enforced like a contract under certain very specific circumstances. Collectors who wanted to sue WotC would essentially have to prove that the Reserved List functioned as a promise from the company, that WotC made it clear that it was a promise that could be relied upon, that the collectors changed their buying patterns because of it, and that the only way the collectors could have avoided losing money on those cards was by WotC continuing to maintain the Reserved List. Even then, they'd only be able to sue for the difference between the price they actually paid for their Reserved List cards and the current value of those cards at the time of the lawsuit.
It is unclear how far a lawsuit would get. I've read arguments that the plaintiffs would eventually lose this case because they didn't sue back in 2010, when the Reserved List was being skirted, so there was no reasonable expectation that this promise would actually be kept. Win or lose, though, it seems quite likely that such a lawsuit would have enough legs to eventually end up in court. I can imagine there are folks at Hasbro who want to avoid this at all costs.
Assuming the Reserved List sticks around, then, is there anything that WotC can do to follow the letter of the law while flaunting its spirit? I've seen some people advocating for the re-opening of the foil loophole, but since that was what caused the Reserved List lockdown in the first place, I doubt it will be reconsidered.
WotC will occasionally print cards that are functionally similar to Reserved List staples, which I really like. Deep Forest Hermit is a solid Deranged Hermit replacement, Gauntlet of Power is better than Gauntlet of Might, and Wheel of Misfortune can act as a Wheel of Fortune in a pinch. While the wording of the Reserved List disallows "functionally identical reprints," preventing WotC from printing a card called Freya's Cradle that is just Gaea's Cradle with a different name, there's clearly a level of similarity that's okay.
That said, I don't think functional reprints would do much to drop the price of Reserved List cards themselves. Since Commander has the singleton rule, no deck that wants a card like Aluren is going to stop wanting a copy if, say, Aluren II were available. Instead, having access to a second Aluren would probably cause the price of the first Aluren to spike due to increased deck consistency. In fact, that's exactly what happened to Deranged Hermit, at least temporarily, when Deep Forest Hermit was first previewed. Here's Deranged Hermit's price chart for the entirety of 2019:
See those big spikes in late May? That was when Modern Horizons 2 was being previewed and Deep Forest Hermit was revealed to the world. While its price tag didn't stay high for long, Deranged Hermit has since been bought out and spiked by quite a bit. It's likely that this brief flurry of activity helped pull a lot of copies off the market. So yeah. Functional reprints might help make Vintage and Legacy more accessible, but this does not seem like a good long-term fix for making current Reserved List cards affordable.
WotC's other solution, which they've been following for the past decade or so, is to de-emphasize Vintage and Legacy. The latter format was still a big deal back in 2010, the last time the Reserved List was modified, but these days it has been relegated to MTGO and the occasional local tournament. It doesn't make sense for WotC to promote a Magic format where some of its key game-pieces haven't been available since Bill Clinton's first term in office and aren't expected to ever go on sale again.
Commander is trickier. A blanket ban on the Reserved List, or a targeted back on its most expensive cards for "accessibility reasons" could work, but hasn't been seriously considered as far as I can tell. It would be incredibly frustrating for folks who spent big bucks on those cards, but there's nothing in the Reserved List that says the cards have to remain legal in any format. Heck, Commander was still a brand-new format the last time they updated their reprint policy. Magic looks very, very different now than it did in 2010, to say nothing of 1995.
My preferred solution is community normalization of clearly-marked proxies (not counterfeit cards) for expensive Reserved List staples. Since so few games of Commander are sanctioned, I see no reason why most playgroups shouldn't create house rules allowing folks to proxy copies of these otherwise inaccessible cards. I can certainly tell you that proxied Reserved List cards will always be allowed in my place, for what that's worth.
As for Legacy, the format doesn't actually rely on as many Reserved List staples as you might think. Izzet Delver, the top deck in the format right now, has zero Reserved List cards aside from four copies of Volcanic Island, and that can easily be replaced with a budget alternative. Standstill and Snow Miracles each rely on a small handful of duals and a single sideboard copy of Null Rod. Death and Taxes is free of Reserved List cards aside from a single Peacekeeper. There are a few decks in the format that are essentially unplayable without a bunch of expensive Reserved List staples, but it isn't the barrier to format accessibility that the community makes it seem to be.
I realize that this is small comfort, though, and that the Reserved List marks an impenetrable barrier of entry to many would-be Vintage and Legacy players. My best advice is to make the Reserved List work for you, if you have the means. Since Reserved List cards are safer long-term investments than almost anything else, savvy speculation, trading, investment, and selling other cards at the top of the market in order to buy into Reserved List staples is a good way to "lock in" value for your collection. Right now, you can product-hover id="1608" for roughly the price of two boxes of Collector Boosters. I can tell you which one I'd rather have in five years, and it isn't the pretty box of fun foils.
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Last week's newsletter was a look at Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, two weeks after release. Now that we have a good sense of what cards are seeing play and where, I wanted to look back and see what cards are hitting, what cards are missing, and how prices have stabilized. We covered all of the set's hottest cards, as well as a few under-the-radar pickups. Subscribe today so you don't miss any more market insights!