The following article reflects my views and not the views of my employer, TCGplayer, whom I love very dearly.
On Monday, Head Magic Designer Mark Rosewater confirmed (yet again) that the Reserved List really, truly, isn't going anywhere.
However you feel about the Reserved List, it's here to stay. Period. This has been clear for years. What isn't clear, however, is why.
In general, Magic publisher Wizards of the Coast is not shy about reprinting cards. Just look at Commander and Legacy staple Swords to Plowshares.
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Since 2019, WotC has reprinted Swords to Plowshares in Mystery Boosters, as a Secret Lair Drop, in Commander Legends (twice), in Strixhaven's Mystical Archive (twice), and in two Commander decks. Despite all these new versions, the Secret Lair and Mystical Archive versions are still over $10. Clearly, there's a market for shiny new versions of older cards, and WotC has been aggressively targeting that market with reprint sets and mini-sets, from Booster Fun to Secret Lairs to Double Masters.
And WotC wasn't always so careful around the Reserved List. They skirted their own rules a few times, and made moves to effectively abolish the List in 2010. Then they abruptly changed course, and have never come close to touching the Reserved List since.
Why? We don't know, and Wizards of the Coast is completely silent on the subject. Even the normally transparent Mark Rosewater won't talk about why he can't talk about it.
We have no way of knowing exactly why WotC has doubled down on keeping the Reserved List. But that doesn't mean we can't speculate! Here are five theories for why the Reserved List is here to stay.
WotC made a promise to Magic collectors, and they don't want to be seen as backtracking on that promise. Simple as that.
A Reddit user identifying as Paul Barclay, the former Rules Manager who was present at the 2010 meeting that almost ended the Reserved List, insists this is the case.
Hasbro legal had nothing to do with it. Neither did Wizards legal; the question wasn't even posed to the legal teams, because the team ended up almost unanimously opposed to removing it. The discussion ended with a simple "we made a promise, and we're not willing to break trust in our promises". I was one of the people arguing to remove the RL; this argument swayed me, as well as several other people.
Case closed! Well, sort of. Not really.
We know from another attendee to that meeting, Ben Bleiweiss, that WotC didn't decide to abolish the Reserved List. But they did decide to subvert the Reserved List by giving themselves permission to print premium versions of Reserved List cards. WotC actually went ahead with those plans and reprinted nine Reserved List cards in 2010.
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Then, two months after that meeting Paul Barclay seems to refer to, WotC abruptly reversed their position. Citing "community concern," they updated their reprint policy to close the premium-version loophole, and they've been silent on the Reserved List ever since.
WotC knew there could be pushback to subverting the Reserved List back when they planned to do it in January 2010. That's why they held the meeting and invited external voices. Something must have happened between January and March that went beyond the typical discontent. And I doubt it had to do with a sudden moral epiphany.
The leading community theory is that WotC would risk a massive class-action lawsuit if they revoked the Reserved List, and the rewards simply aren't worth that risk.
When WotC made the Reserved List, they made a promise not to reprint any of the cards on that list. Collectors, investors, and anyone who bought or sold a Reserved List card relied upon that promise in their decision-making. If WotC breaks that promise, anyone who relied on it would have grounds to sue for the value their cards lost as a result. Given that there are literally millions of Reserved List cards in the world, with a total value in the billions of dollars, even a 10% dip in prices would be an enormous amount of money. Even if WotC won all the resulting suits, the legal fees would be prohibitively expensive.
If Paul Barclay is right that WotC and Hasbro's legal teams weren't involved in the Reserved List meeting in January, they might have become involved after the Phyrexian Negator spoiler dropped, prompting the stunning reversal in March. So the Promissory Estoppel theory could explain what happened in 2010, and why community opinion and Mark Rosewater's preferences have no impact on the issue.
The argument for this theory ultimately depends on a cost-benefit analysis. Would Hasbro lawyers in 2010 have concluded that the costs of lawsuits resulting from the subversion (not abandonment) of the Reserved List outweighed the benefits of reprinting desirable cards? Would they have been right? And would they still be right today?
I don't want to guess, and not just because I'm lazy. The number of financial and legal factors at play are too overwhelming. To solve this problem you'd want what Hasbro had: a team of corporate lawyers. Reasonable people can disagree on how much reprints would have impacted Reserved List prices and the likelihood of WotC losing a class action lawsuit. I'd rather just throw my hands up and say "it's plausible."
I have one problem with this theory that doesn't depend on the cost-benefit analysis. Assuming WotC keeps the Reserved List out of fear of being sued for breaching their promise, they have a few ways they could present that information.
WotC has chosen none of these, opting instead for:
6. "No comment."
Say what you will about Wizards of the Coast, they are remarkably transparent about their inner workings, especially compared to their peers in the TCG world. Mark Rosewater shares information about marketing, community sentiment, and sales. But when asked about the Reserved List, all he will say is:
I. Can't. Talk. About. It. Next question.
This mystery as to why the Reserved List remains only feeds the calls for it to be abolished (and speculative articles, like this one). Why has WotC chosen radio silence as their messaging strategy?
Whenever The Reserved List comes back into the discourse, somebody advances this theory. It's not a serious theory, but let's discuss it anyway. For fun.
What if the high-ups at Wizards of the Coast have an interest in keeping Reserved List cards expensive for personal gain? Say one of WotC's executives owns five sets of Power 9. Alpha. All together, 45 of the most valuable cards in Magic history might be worth $2.5-3 Million. Considering the average compensation for a WotC executive is somewhere around $220,000, $3 Million is… still not enough to retire on, but pretty close. Who wouldn't be tempted to protect their investment?
But for this theory to hold water, you need more than one greedy executive. You need a mind-boggling level of—"corruption" feels a little hyperbolic when we're talking about card games, but yeah—corruption, for this to be sustainable. You need everyone who makes decisions at WotC to either have a significant financial stake in the Reserved List, or report to somebody who does. Even then, all it would take is one conscientious objector to leak this entire operation to the press. Everyone, new and tenured, would have to be in 100% lockstep.
And they better be able to defend their position to their Hasbro overlords. When Brian Goldner calls, you need a very good reason why you aren't printing Secret Lair: Back in Black Lotus for a 100,000% markup. And it can't be, "I need my 10 copies of Chaos Orb to pay for my kid's college."
At a certain point, extreme cynicism loops back around to being naivete. This is one of those times.
Even if you think the risks of abolishing the Reserved List (community backlash, market crash, lawsuits, etc.) are minimal, they aren't nothing. WotC won't accept that risk if there are ways to get the same rewards at no risk. And frankly, WotC doesn't need help printing cards that are worth far, far more than the cardboard they're printed on.
WotC already has a massive backlog of reprintable cards. With Secret Lair and similar products, they have plenty of ways to print and sell those cards at terrific margins. Sure, reprinting Gaea's Cradle would make them a ton of money—but would it be substantially more money than reprinting Imperial Seal, or Mana Crypt, or Wrenn and Six? Financially, there's no incentive to even look at the Reserved List until WotC has exhausted every combination of high-value card and popular IP they can think of.
Now, I don't think this theory works in isolation. Back in January 2010, when Wizards of the Coast wasn't riding double-digit growth, they were interested in using Reserved List reprints to sell products—until they weren't.
That said, if whatever circumstances caused the abrupt change of heart in March of 2010 no longer apply, this theory would explain why WotC isn't interested in revisiting their decision. Inertia is a powerful force in large organizations. Anyone at WotC who wants to relitigate the Reserved List question today not only has to overcome whatever the objections were in 2010, but also the current landscape, where WotC can turn even Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded into product-hover id="223082". I wouldn't be surprised if WotC's decision-makers simply aren't willing to entertain the idea.
Maybe WotC is worried about having to pay penalties to collectors who hold Reserved List cards. But, maybe that's not the worst-case scenario of a lawsuit on this topic. Heads up: we're about to enter full-on tin-foil hat territory.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, U.S. judges heard a series of cases alleging that booster packs printed by sports card and trading card companies broke anti-gambling laws. The plaintiffs lost every case, often on procedural grounds. But a key argument from Upper Deck, one of the defendants, was that any secondary market value their cards had was beyond their control. All that they promise when they sell a booster pack is that the purchaser will receive a certain quantity of cards, which they always do. Since there's no "prize" to be won or lost, it's not gambling.
Say you're a Hasbro lawyer in 2010. Your job is to protect your client from legal risks—like running afoul of gambling laws. So you draw up plans for how you will defend WotC from future lawsuits like Chaset v. Fleer Skybox International LP, and you...
[editors' note: I find editors' notes to be pretty self-indulgent so I've done my best to abstain from doing them, but in proofing this article I feel compelled to reiterate that GOOD LORD does this theory—or any of the rest of them, for that matter—NOT reflect the opinions of TCGplayer. -Jon]
...figure you'll rely on Upper Deck's argument. Now you just have to make sure there's no evidence of WotC endorsing the idea that their cards have any particular financial value.
Then you get a call from the Magic folks saying, "Hey, we're going to tip-toe around this Reserved List thing, that's cool right?" Huh. What's the Reserved List?
...much of the collectibility of a Magic card is determined by its availability for game-play purposes. Accordingly, we have decided to expand on our previous policies by creating a new category of cards, called "Reserved Cards," that we will never be printed [sic] again in black or white border in game-functionally identical form.
That looks bad. But that was back in 1996, when the company was still young. Surely your clients haven't said anything dodgy since then—
Primary to the value of purchasing Magic cards is the concept that each card will maintain a reasonable value over time. Because we're sensitive to this issue and to the ramifications of reprinting cards too soon or too often, we try to make decisions that won't negatively affect card collectability over time and that will enhance the value of cards you purchase.
Oh no. No no no no no. This thing is a bomb that could blow up your entire defense.
You can't erase this evidence, but you can do damage control. 1999 was still a long time ago. If this ever comes up in court, you can argue that WotC has not had any opinion on the market value of their cards for at least the past decade. You just need everyone at WotC to not talk about it. Don't touch the reprint policy, and don't get involved in lawsuits where it's going to come up. WotC has no opinion on what the value of its cards is, or should be, after they've been opened. WotC's reprinting policies are not made to impact the secondary market in any way. No comment.
Now, this theory is pure speculation. I have not seen any comments from WotC or its employees which indicate the company is concerned about changes in gambling laws. Also, I'm not a lawyer. I'm just saying that if I were a lawyer, I'd probably want to make sure that the current legal backlash against loot boxes doesn't spill over onto booster packs, the original loot boxes. And I probably wouldn't want my clients explicitly endorsing the idea that rare cards are investments.