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Fixing the Reserved List


Over the past month, there's been a lot of conversations about the rampant buyouts of Reserved List cards. While things like Lion's Eye Diamond and Moat brought the issue to everyone's attention, the trend has continued with a new Reserved List card being bought out weekly (and sometimes daily). We've now reached the point where people are admitting to buying out cards like Narwhal simply to troll the community or in the name of "science" to see what will happen. 

While you might think these buyouts are ineffective, buying out cheap, low-end Reserved List cards can often be extremely profitable. Of course, no one is paying $345 for Timmerian Fiends and hopefully, no one is paying $8, but buying out a card for $0.25 and buylisting it for $1.00 (the current best buylist for Timmerian Fiends is still easy money and a huge profit.

These buyouts are facilitated by the very nature of the Reserved List. There's a reason we don't see these types of buyouts happening in Standard or Modern, or even to cards from older post-Reserved List sets. If you keep up on the speculation aspect of MTG finance, you'll know that the nightmare scenario for an "investor" is to buy a bunch of copies of a card, only to get caught by the announcement of a reprinting in a supplemental product or Masters set. In a very real sense, the fear of reprinting keeps speculation in check, because a surprise reprint is the one important variable that speculators can't control, and figuring out what Wizards might reprint a year or two in the future is guesswork, at best. The Reserved List takes away the one biggest element of risk involved in speculating on Magic cards, by taking the possibility of a reprinting off the table all together. 

The buyout of Narwhal was conducted by a YouTuber with the goal of pushing up the price and as a "troll." However, the big takeaway is just how fragile the ecosystem is for Reserved List cards. The "buyout" was 20 copies of a $0.50 rare (for a total cost of around $10), which was enough to push the TCG-Mid price up to $10 over the short term, while the card is still somewhere between x5 and x10 its pre-buyout price today.

Now, the woefully low supply (compared to the current player base) of cards from Magic's earliest years certainly doesn't help, but low supply alone isn't enough to cause most buyouts. We have other examples of cards that are in low supply (various promos, foils from the first post-Reserved List sets, Coldsnap foils) and we don't see these cards getting bought out all willy-nilly. For cards in Modern (Standard doesn't really apply, because most of the cards in Standard are still in print and essentially impossible to buy out), a large percentage of buyouts is grounded, at least to some extent, in demand (sometimes real demand, like an uptick in play, or speculative demand based on an event that could happen in the future).

Look at a card like Mishra's Bauble. Sure, it was "bought out," but there's been a huge rise in real demand for the card over the past few months, as Death's Shadow Zoo shot up to the top tier of the Modern format. Of course, the fact that Mishra's Bauble is relatively low in supply because it's only printing was in Coldsnap makes a buyout possible (this is why the card from Death's Shadow Zoo that was bought out and had the huge price spike was Mishra's Bauble and not Monastery Swiftspear, even though Monastery Swiftspear sees just as much play in Death's Shadow Zoo and sees more play in other archetypes as well), but there is genuine demand to back up the purchase of the card. 

I could keep rambling on, but the bottom line is this: while being in comparatively low supply makes a buyout possible, simply being in low supply typically isn't a reason to buy out a card, because it will likely take the speculator quite a while to sell the cards for a profit, and in the meantime, they run the risk of a reprinting, which would likely cause the speculator to lose everything. What allows for rampant buyouts is the combination of low supply along with the lack of risk of a reprinting caused by the promise of the Reserve List. Without the risk of reprinting, the speculator doesn't really have to worry about how long it takes to sell the card—they can wait 5 or 10 years, knowing that, year by year, there will be fewer copies in circulation, and as long as people remain interested in Magic (which seems a good bet, based on all of the information we have), their speculations are likely to increase in value. 

The Reserved List Is Here to Stay

Let me start by saying that, if I had my way, the solution to this problem would be getting rid of the Reserved List all together, which would not only fix the problem by adding a healthy amount of risk into the speculators' equations, but would also benefit formats like Legacy and even Vintage by allowing for the reprinting of cards like dual lands that are the biggest barriers of entry into older formats. However, this is not going to happen.

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The reason this is not going to happen isn't so much the Reserved List itself (although the Reserved List does provide a convenient excuse)—if Wizards really wanted to, it could come up with a plan to get out from under the Reserved List, but Wizards doesn't want to get rid of the Reserved List because Wizards is heading the opposite direction. Maro mentioned on his blog this week that, in the future, it's likely we'll have a new format that cuts off some of the older sets currently legal in Modern. In this scenario, the new format will likely become Modern and Modern will become Legacy (or be completely unsupported), while Legacy and Vintage fade even further into the background. Basically, Wizards is fine with Legacy and Vintage dying. There are a lot of skeletons in the closet thanks to the early years of Magic, with broken spells, uninteractive combos, and gameplay patterns that Wizards would rather have us forget. I mean, if modern-day Magic players can't handle fetching out some basic lands to play around Blood Moon, how are they going to handle Stasis, Balance, or Armageddon backed up by Force of Will, Daze, and Misdirection? The problem with Legacy and Vintage isn't just that they are expensive (and would still be expensive, even if the Reserved List were banished), but that they represent the old way of playing Magic, and Wizards' vision of the game's future doesn't include Turn 2 Storm kills and Stasis locks. 

Of course, this isn't even considering the financial incentives. Wizards wants players playing formats that rotate as often as possible, which primarily means Standard but also Modern, which has seen hidden, forced rotations in the form of bannings for the past several years. That is why I 100% believe that Wizards will dump Modern at some point in the future for a post-Modern format. While this will likely be years down the road, by that time, Wizards will have eked every drop of value from Arcbond Ravager, Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, and the like after reprinting them multiple times, and then they can simply lop those cards off of Modern. This way, in the Post-Modern format, the staples will be from Theros, Shadows over Innistrad, and Kaladesh, which will allow Wizards to make a ton of money printing supplemental products to support Post-Modern. Then, once they run the Post-Modern well dry, they can simply create another format and do it again. Modern tangent aside, Legacy and Vintage don't rotate, which is the reason why Wizards is fine with these formats dying (or moving primarily to Magic Online)—Wizards simply has limited avenues to monitizing these formats, and without rotation, players can run back their decks from 2009 and have success, which is exactly what Wizards wants to avoid.

As such, I'm giving up on the idea that Wizards will ever remove the Reserved List. There are simply too many reasons why Wizards would rather keep printing new sets for Modern (and in the future, Post-Modern, then Ultra-Modern) and let the mistakes of the past be pushed to side events and underground Legacy tournaments. 

The Reserved List Isn't Working as Intended

Even though I'm giving up on the repeal of the Reserved List, I do think that there needs to be a change. If you look back at the original intent of the Reserved List, it was to give collectors and players peace of mind to continue buying cards in the aftermath of Chronicles. Initially, everything from Alpha and Beta, along with Uncommons from other pre-Fallen Empires sets, were on the Reserved List, along with oodles of Rares.

Then, in 2002, the Mothership published an article titled Reexamining the Reserve List, which substantially changed the list itself. In the article, Wizards states that the "world of Magic has changed so much that it’s not clear the [Reserved List] policy is still doing exactly what it was intended to do." It mentions that "the whole policy was based on the assumption that out of print cards go up in value over time. This logic works just fine for cards like the Moxes—their prices would clearly drop dramatically if they were suddenly included in, say, 8th Edition, and thus the Reprint Policy makes sense." They go on to use Juggernaut and Clone as examples of cards that could be reprinted, without hurting the prices of the original printings—or possibly even increasing the value of the original printing (a theory that has been proven true time and time again over the past decade)—and as cards that could be fun to have around again. 

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The article nailed it. The Reserved List does work (or at least did work) great for Mox Jet and Underground Sea by giving players confidence in putting out obscene amounts of money for cardboard (although I think there is a good argument that black-bordered duals and moxen are pretty much reprint proof as collector's items these days). On the other hand, it doesn't really work for random cards like Clone and Juggernaut, because Clone and Juggernaut aren't collectors items like the Power 9, dual lands, Library of Alexandria, Bazaar of Baghdad, and other high-end cards. 

The intention of the Reserved List was not to let random people hurt players by buying out random cards like Narwhal and jacking up the price; its intention was to help and protect players, but we've once again reached a point where, at least in many cases, the Reserved List is doing the opposite of what it intended.

Fixing the Reserved List

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There are 569 cards on the Reserved List, including cards from Alpha through Urza's block. With such a large number of cards, one of the biggest problems with the Reserved List is variance. There's no list in the world that should include both Mox Jet and Escaped Shapeshifter, because these cards are nothing alike. One is on the short list of the most powerful cards in Magic, a Vintage staple, and without a doubt a collector's item; the other is a bulk Rare that you've probably never heard of unless you happen to run a casual or Commander Shapeshifter deck (also, what is happening in that art?). So, just how many cards on the Reserved List are Mox Jets and just how many are Escaped Shapeshifters? Probably the easiest way to examine this question is by using the prices of cards on the Reserved List. 

As you can see, even with a lot of irrational price spikes over the past few months pushing cards up the price scale, most of the cards on the Reserved List have more in common with Juggernaut than they do with Mox Jet. In fact, 69% of the cards on the Reserved List are currently worth less than $5. These are cards that have had 20 years to appreciate in value, but haven't increased any meaningful amount (which should pour some water on the "it was going to happen anyway" fire that people conducting buyouts love to light). 

What I'm proposing is that Wizards needs to make an announcement similar to the one back in 2002 (actually, they can copy and paste that one if they want, with some slight changes) stating that, effective immediately, they are cutting the Reserved List in half (I'm open to quibbling over the exact percent—personally, I'd favor everything in the $25 or less group being reprintable, which would push the number closer to 75 or 80%, but I expect there to be some amount of disagreement of what exactly qualifies as a Juggernaut and what qualifies as a Mox Jet). The 50% number would mean all of the cards worth $2 or less (which I think everyone would agree qualify as Juggernauts) are suddenly off the Reserved List. This would make all of the inexpensive, obviously-not-collector's items card eligible for reprinting, and leave these cards in the hands of the random casual/Commander players. 

I would argue that cutting down the Reserved List significantly would actually bring the Reserved List more in line with what it was originally intended to do. The list would still protect collectors, long-time players with huge collections of older cards, and current Legacy / Vintage players by keeping cards that truly are collector's items as collector's items, while also protecting the casual player who just wants to build a Sea Troll-themed Commander deck without spending $5 on a Narwhal.

Now, I don't especially care how quickly Wizards gets around to actually reprinting these cards—it's not the act of reprinting that will make things better. Simply the threat of reprinting should keep random people with Internet connections from manipulating card prices for the low, low investment of $10. That said, the change would free up a significant number of cool old cards to be printed in foil for the first time and spice up in supplemental products (or even Standard-legal sets, in some instances). Now, I'm anticipating a few questions, so let me see if I can head them off. If you have more, leave them in the comments. 

  • But this doesn't solve the problem for Legacy / Vintage, does it? Nope, but remember, I don't really think Wizards wants Legacy and Vintage to be a major part of the modern Magic scene for several reasons. Obviously, removing less-expensive cards from the Reserved List doesn't do anything to keep high-end chase staples from being extremely expensive. Instead, this is basically a compromise or admission of defeat when it comes to getting rid of the Reserved List all together. Essentially, we are writing off a small number of extremely expensive cards (that, in all honestly, most players weren't going to buy anyway), and in exchange, we get rid of the insanity of people buying out random casual Reserved List cards on a lark or to troll the community. 
  • If these cards are cheap already, why does it matter? A year ago, I would have agreed with this argument, but we've seen a troubling trend of people buying out bulk Reserved List cards for no good reason. One thing that's clear is just because some random old Reserved List card is $0.25 today doesn't mean it won't be $10 (or more) tomorrow because someone decided to spend $10 to manipulate the market. 
  • Oh, so you're trying to keep prices down. Isn't this hurting collectors? People who are buying out bulk Rares on the Reserved List cards aren't collectors; they are market manipulators looking to take advantage of casual players, Commander players, and other everyday players by inflating the price of cards. This compromise solution is designed to protect real collectors, old-timers, and Legacy / Vintage players by leaving every single card that matters, or even possibly could matter, on the Reserved List.
  • Don't the recent changes at TCG fix the problem? First off, let me say again that I think the move away from TCG-Mid to TCG-Market is a good thing for players. This said, it doesn't really do much (or anything) to solve the buyout problem. The one thing the change might do to improve the situation is provide an easy-to-see difference between what sellers are asking for a card and what the card has actually sold for. If there's a huge difference between these two numbers, the logical conclusion most people will draw is that the price is artificially inflated, and (hopefully) they'll avoid buying the card. The problem is that even the Market price can be manipulated (buy out a card, relist a few copies at an extremely high price, and have a couple of friends fake-purchase the copies to bring the Market price in line with the TCG-Mid price), and if this happens, the Market price could make the buyout problem worse rather than better. If people are looking at the difference between Market and Mid to know whether the asking price on a card is real, people may be more likely to buy cards at post-spike prices if the person conducting the buyout manipulates the Market price to make it look in line with Mid. If this happens, it could make random buyouts more profitable and encourage the exact behavior the change is intended to curb. 

  • Why would Wizards do this? Well, for one thing, Wizards did this before, back in 2002 (as we've discussed), and the world didn't come to an end. Also, even hiding behind the "we don't talk about the secondary market" rule of Wizards / Hasbro, it has to turn some Wizards employees' stomachs to see what's happening to old cards and cards that they designed or played with, and likely want other people to have the opportunity to play with as well. Plus, the constant complaining, bad press, and social media discussions aren't really good things for Wizards. Wizards already has to fight against the perception that the game is too expensive, and seeing massive 1,000% percent price spikes due to market manipulation just keeps the issue in the forefront of the community's mind and doesn't provide a good introduction for new players joining the game. 

Conclusion

So, is this solution perfect? No, of course not; that's the nature of compromise. On the other hand, shortening the Reserved List (unlike getting rid of the Reserved List altogether) actually has historical precedent and may be an achievable goal. It won't solve the "make Legacy accessible" problem (not that Wizards wants to solve that problem), but it will protect casual players and potentially allow some really cool old cards to be reprinted for a new generation of players to discover and enjoy. 

Anyway, that's all for today. Leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive, or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com. 

 

 


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