Eternal Masters is looking like it will have no effect on Legacy and Vintage. Is abolishing the Magic: The Gathering Reserved List the way forward?
With the upcoming release of Eternal Masters on June 10th, there has been increasing interest in what implications, financial or otherwise, that this set will have on Legacy (and in turn, Vintage). This has then been redressed towards the age old issues involving the reserved list, and what it means to the variety players across the Magic: The Gathering demographic. Following a recent post made in the Manaleak MTG Facebook groups posing this exact question, it seems prudent to delve further into the debate, with the aim to negotiate possible outcomes at which Wizards of the Coast (hereafter referred to as Wizards) may arrive.
So to the problem at hand. Let us start by asking some simple questions.
What Is Eternal Masters?
Well, if you have arrived here, hopefully you are already aware of Wizards’ new trend of re-releasing older format playable cards in exclusive limited sets. These cards are not for legal in Standard, but instead include notable staples from throughout the history of Magic: The Gathering, usually up to and including a certain date. Modern stretches back to 8th Edition and has now seen two such releases in the form of Modern Masters and Modern Masters 2015.
Eternal Masters continues this trend but is instead aimed at other formats, most notably Legacy, Vintage and EDH/Commander (Elder Dragon Highlander) which have access to all the cards in Magic: The Gathering’s history, and are affectionately known as ‘Eternal’ formats. For the purpose of this article, Vintage will, however, be considered a separate entity, something to be addressed at another time. Legacy includes a much tighter banned list than Vintage, but otherwise the formats are relatively similar in their card base. For obvious reasons wider card pools lead to more broken and powerful decks, and with a large amount of the ‘chase’ cards in Legacy having been printed close to 20 years ago, many cards demand hefty price tags.
When Modern Masters was first released, it allowed for a huge influx of new players to enter the Modern format. So many new players in fact, that the end result was an overall price increase in the most highly sought after cards (I am looking at you [Card]Tarmogoyf[/Card]). The second edition has helped ease prices somewhat considerably, despite community objections to a similar print run in 2015. Modern now boasts an impressively high player base and this is almost certainly in the most part due to these limited print run booster boxes.
Logically then, Eternal Masters should bring about a new renaissance for Legacy. Imagine going into your local game store and anticipating the ability to play not only in pods of Standard, Draft or Modern, but frequently joining Legacy events on a regular basis. Games that see you Storm off on turn two, killing your opponent with [Card]Tendrils of Agony[/Card]. Games that see you counter every spell your opponent plays with a [Card]Counterbalance[/Card] – [Card]Sensei’s Divining Top[/Card] lock. Games that see you [Card]Goblin Charbelcher[/Card] out your entire manaless deck for 55 damage to your opponent while they just sit there and watch in confused horror. Glorious. Broken.
Except for one thing… The reserved list…
Revered By A Few… Loathed By Many – The Reserved List Is the Biggest Barrier To Older Formats. But What Is It Exactly?
The reserved list was created on March 4th, 1996, and is simply a list of cards Wizards have pledged to never print again, functionally or otherwise. The problem stems from the fact that a good portion of these cards see competitive play in Vintage and Legacy formats. Not only that, the cards that do see play are literally irreplaceable in the decks that use them (I.e. [Card]Gaea’s Cradle[/Card] in Elves), in addition to the fact that almost all of those cards are worth hundreds or thousands of dollars in today’s market. Imagine if Wizards had printed Modern Masters, but instead of shock lands being ten dollars each they were three hundred dollars because Wizards had made a pledge to never print them again. Do we still consider the format accessible? Whilst this is a somewhat clumsy comparison it does serve to show the inherent difference between the two formats.
Despite this, Eternal Masters has had some truly awesome older cards reprinted, giving opportunities to pick up some of the expensive staples of top tier decks at a more accessible price. Coupled with the ‘rise’ of the Eldrazi decks, Legacy will be at an all time high in its entry level price curve. I certainly expect to see more Legacy Burn decks floating around with [Card]Price of Progress[/Card] and [Card]Chain Lightning[/Card] being reprinted. Manaless Dredge is also an excellent build-able gateway deck that can branch into a number of other top tier decks depending on which way you chose to develop it.
The downside to all this being that the reserved cards’ prices are already on the rise thanks to the sheer potential for increased demand. And it is here that we have the crux of all our current problems and complaints regarding these older formats. We have the collectors, the people that Wizards made a pledge to that has been upheld for close to 20 years now, who obviously don’t wish to lose value on their investments. After all, it is a collectible card game, but why collect something if it isn’t guaranteed to maintain its value. On the other hand, we have the newer players, the detractors, those who see the reserved list as a form of elitism, segregating the wealthy from the poor in the game of Magic: The Gathering.
So why was the reserved list even created in the first place? Following the release of 4th Edition and Chronicles in 1995, there was a massive outcry over the amount of reprinted cards and the subsequent devaluation previous editions. Wizards had not anticipated this kind of backlash, and as a business move made a promise never to create duplicate reprint sets. They also set in place the reserved list – cards that they pledged to never print again.
However since that day in 1995, the reserved list has been through its share of alterations: In 2002, Wizards took off a number of cards from the reserved list and decided that from Mercadian Masques onward, we would no longer see cards added to it. Then in 2010, following further complaints from collectors, Wizards decided to rule out the printing of premium versions of reserved list cards, a loophole Wizards had been exploiting (E.g. [Card]Intuition[/Card] being printed as a Judge Reward Foil). This has left us with the situation we are in today – everything is available for a reprint, excluding the cards that a large section of the Magic community wish to see reprinted featured on the reserved list.
Though Wizards cannot ‘legally’ make functional reprints, many people argued that simply making slightly less powerful or conditional variants would be good enough. A dual land that entered the battlefield untapped but allows the opponent to Scry 1 or 2 is certainly functionally different enough to one that enters the battlefield for ‘free’. The main issue here being that it does not actually replace the cards already used in Legacy, and as it is functionally worse, would likely have little to no impact on deck construction in the format.
This idea is often backed up with the notion of ‘no reserve list’ Legacy: Without dismissing this idea, it is highly unlikely that current Legacy players would consider this a viable game plan. Taking away what the reserve list offers leaves many decks severely neutered. It would be a very different landscape to the current Legacy metagame, and one that would not be half as powerful. If Wizards were to endorse this move, it would almost certainly see an immediate plunge in the value of the reserved list cards, something that Wizards had been trying to avoid in the first place.
“So Why Not Do This? Who Cares Who Loses Money?” – Popular Verdict Or Against Wizards’ Values?
For one, I care. I have been playing for a number of years and am proud to have a substantial collection of Magic: The Gathering cards. For many collectors the effort that went into finding, bartering and finally purchasing some of the more chase older cards is part and parcel with the Legacy or Vintage experience. Many of us are still building that collection, saving up to purchase a missing piece or two from different decks, instead of buying another booster box from the latest set. And most Legacy players, despite common opinion, did not play in the 90’s. Maybe they were lucky enough to ‘buy in to’ Legacy several years ago at cheaper prices, but that still required an investment into the format, and likely means continued expensive purchases today. This is largely irrelevant though when it comes to the point at hand – why not just reprint everything? Because even if you are not part of this ‘elite’ group, you should care if you have even the slightest interest in the history of Magic.
Because of the nature of CCGs (Collectable Card Games), Magic: The Gathering involves many different cards per set, leaving us with a great amount of variance in card playability. Wizards wish to encourage a Pro Tour as it helps to drive new product exposure. But to do so, they need the allure of a high stakes tournament which means cash prizes, prize walls and other competitive events to take part in. With these elevated stakes comes an increase in both player bases and a surge in demand for competitive cards. The higher the demand, the more expensive any single card will become.
Well, why not make all the cards worth nothing? Print them all at the same level?
You could certainly try to make every card worth the same by printing everything at an equal ratio, and there are other CCGs that behave in this manner. Fantasy Flight Games designed ‘Living Card Games‘ (LCGs) which specifically opt out of the ‘blind buy’ purchase model (for example, booster packs). Instead, all cards are printed in core sets, expansion packs, and deluxe expansions with fixed cards. Rarity still exists, but as all the cards are immediately accessible through the expansions, there is little need for trading and, therefore, no driven secondary market.
Imagine all Magic cards becoming commons, printed in the same quantity. The difficulty in this is largely based on the fact that Wizards has already established its business model. To take away booster packs and boxes now, replacing all future sets with fixed regulated card packs, would completely destroy the secondary market, the stores that supply the product, online traders and you, the players, with the trade binder full of cards. I firmly believe that had Magic started in this manner, that it would not have gained the popularity, reputation and acclaim that it boasts to this day.
We have to remember that entertainment is big business – Wizards are literally competing for your social life.
We have to remember that entertainment is big business – Wizards are literally competing for your social life. They are asking you to spend hundreds of pounds, each year to keep coming back and playing a game that they alone can sell to you. They are asking for both time and money in your investments, and have set out a regular event every Friday at your local game store to make sure that this happens. The term Friday Night Magic (FNM) didn’t just turn up out of the blue, people were paid to design a catchy title to keep you coming back every week. To spend money on boxes that cost £70 or more, or individual boosters at £3.50 a pop, and as dedicated players we do that and becomes part of a lifestyle to many.
But we also expect some returns from our dedication – If you knew before buying a box that it had an actual value of £10, I imagine most players would feel cheated, disincentivised to pay the steep price. After all, that could be two or three video games with friends, a new tennis racket or money towards another hobby. The reality in fact is that a good portion of Magic players see a £3 pack as a potential £20 card. It’s why we are not investing into ‘Living Card Games’ because like it or not, Magic appeals to people who are really hoping to get a card that is actually worth more money than the amount they spent. Its about building a deck over time, piece by piece, trade by trade to final completion, not just buying one out of the pack ready to play. It’s about being able to say you didn’t ‘waste money on a silly card game’ to your spouse, but you ‘invested in card based futures’. Yes, it is about playing the game but also about so beyond the realms of life totals, power and toughness. It’s about playing a game that has a history, a future, and a sense of direction in which it is going, not something that can just be picked up and discarded. Whether we like it or not, box prices, rarities and therefore expensive playable cards are here to stay for the long haul.
But Some Prices Are Spiralling Out Of Control – What Can We Do To Help Stop This?
Well in the original Zendikar block, Wizards seemed willing to throw in some of these very expensive staples as a ‘treasure’ for the players to hunt for, ranging from Power 9 pieces to dual lands and other notable reserve list inclusions. Note that these were not reprints, rather parts of the stock that Wizards has access to as a gimmick to increase sales of Zendikar sealed product. This was mimicked in Battle For Zendikar though the treasures were not quite of the same ilk as their predecessors (despite being a highly sought after commodity). Further supplementary products akin to this would go a small way to introducing increased circulation of these rarities, however it seems likely the next time we could see a repeat of this generosity will not be until we return to Zendikar yet again, which is likely to be years away.
Even if Wizards were able to do this, the sheer fact of the matter is that supply cannot possibly meet demand. In a world where over twenty million players are now playing Magic, a list of unprintable cards that are necessary to any particular format is not a sustainable enterprise. Conversely, we cannot have Wizards blanket reprinting everything for the many reasons I have detailed earlier. So is Eternal Masters doomed to only promote those already invested in Legacy? Not necessarily.
If we consider Eternal Masters and its predecessors as Wizards taking an interest in formats other than Standard, we can speculate on what might be in their best interests moving forward, and herein lies a relatively simple solution – Wizards takes control of the secondary market. Obviously directly telling shops what prices are for what cards is not realistic. They cannot control buy figures or spikes in interest following Pro Tours, for example. That notion is ridiculous as it is absurd and would guarantee immediate backlash from the general playing populous, not to mention the actual businesses associated with it.
Instead, what I would suggest is the standardisation (unannounced and undisclosed) of price figures on cards. While this could be remarkably unpopular, it could not only help traders stabilise a financial allocation to their inventory but also decrease the risks of buyouts and redundancies. Importantly, it would help to ensure collectors know that their cards will not lose their value, whilst also not accumulating any further value. The market becomes a stable trading platform – A fairer market, designed to negate forced buyouts, allowing real trends to come about from interest and play. In an ideal world, booster boxes would have flatter retail values, Standard would of course still have fluctuations, but Modern and Eternal formats would be relatively balanced and under control.
“So What Does This Mean For Future Sets? Reprint Everything To Stabilise The Prices?”
Yes, but controlled reprinting. Imagine with me, if you will – As of today Wizards decide that the prices of cards are set, forever. Using any grading scale they choose, but one that ideally bears a realistic match to current market valuations. Then, going over the values of the most expensive reserved, Eternal and Modern staples, they calculate reasonable values at which they’d like said cards to stay. Crucially for reserved cards, these values must still preserve the implication of the reserved list. No, dual lands will never be ‘cheap’ but ideally we prevent the continuing surge of price increases on these staples in the future. They set the agreed values in house, remaining undisclosed for the time being. Then announcements come out publicly that chase cards are being printed, spread throughout different sets, at any time and any place, without disclosing which in particular would feature in a specific print run. Though limited sets would continue to exist, only future expansion sets would contain said chase cards from the reserved list or otherwise. Even if Wizards never actually reprint the cards themselves, the secondary market would react to mirror the changes to card values imposed by the changing circulation of Eternal staples created by Wizards.
With this, Wizards can give themselves and collectors a gradual introduction into the secondary market. Over the space of five to ten years, they can print a few thousand different reserved list cards and watch how the market reacts. When cards stabilise at a set price for a pre-determined time period, then mission accomplished. If they begin to climb yet again, further prints are on the way. It isn’t a fast fix, but good solutions take time. We can’t simply rip the reserved list bandage off!
Standard cards rotating out of the format that see play in Modern and Legacy can henceforth be stabilised once rotation has occurred. Whatever the value is, Wizards let us know how much that card will cost, as and when – not outwardly, but through price manipulation via additional print runs in future expansions. So when Wizards print some game breaking two-mana flip Planeswalker that skyrockets to $100 in Standard for the year it remains legal, but then drops to $40 post rotation, they can allow the card to see market fluctuation and then set that price in their books. If it suddenly sees more play and demand increases, they print to demand to maintain collector values but also to prevent ludicrous spikes outside of Standard.
This would make Magic: The Gathering speculators fairly unhappy, as the constant price swings in the market are what give them the ability to exploit and turn a profit on cards. However, print turn around times would still be in matters of months and years, not days and weeks. There would be room in the market for careful speculation but the simple knowledge that cards that spike heavily will be reprinted will heavily influence just how far any one card can actually see price inflation. This would hopefully help to keep the market value variance to more tolerable levels. I would be personally glad to see an end to these speculation cabals but, realistically, it would be impossible as Standard would still be rife for exploitation should they feel the need.
The reason being Standard would be outside of these price setting limitations that Wizards can set for the other formats. You can’t control Standard through printing because it already has an essentially unlimited printing in its immediate accessibility. If a card gets to a level of extreme demand, the best answer is that more packs are cracked and overall circulation increases. Standard demand also fuels a large part of the secondary market, so variance is required for those established in the industry, local game stores or otherwise.
The big question here is if Wizards could actually do something akin to this – Aside from how remarkably difficult it would be to set up something like this, even making the announcement opens them up to a lawsuit from fervent collectors who may well disagree with me on a controlled reprint policy, and see it as a threat to their financial investment.
What I would say to these people is twofold: Firstly, Wizards promised that they would never reprint the reserved list cards, but that wasn’t true to their intentions. What they meant to say was they wouldn’t allow players to feel threatened by an immediate devaluation on long term investments. Conversely, they didn’t mean that aforementioned players should be able to capitalise exponentially on cards featured in sets with a highly limited print run.
Secondly, the reserved list was written and set out in a time before major online retail and intently-observed competitive gaming existed. The reserved list is a product (Dare I say, relic) of its time that has served its purpose, but is now a relatively dangerous tool. Practical, more recent machinations can be utilised to create a much more stable and welcoming market for the increasingly large player base of the worlds most widely played CCGs. Wizards of the Coast face a potential uphill struggle over the coming years to work out exactly what it is they want to do about the Eternal formats. If it is their intention to continue to print sets such as Eternal Masters, I strongly hope they have a plan in place to help introduce newer players to older formats, and that means addressing the issue of the reserved list. As always, only time will tell…
Community Question: Is abolishing the Reserved List the way forward for Legacy and Vintage?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section.
Thanks for reading,