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Right now the Reserved List is a dead weight on the game of Magic: the Gathering. I don’t believe it should be discarded, but it could be changed to become part of the modern game, rather than an embarrassing relic that people would rather pretend isn’t there.
This article is where I suggest changes to the Reprint Policy for Magic: the Gathering. If you like, you can skip to the end and see my proposal.
I think the Reserved List can be changed, and even expanded, in a way that services players while recognising collectors.
Magic: the Gathering is a uniquely popular card game and collectible. Many Magic: the Gathering players simply want to play the game. Others both play and collect. Some people collect but do not play.
This gives cards two purposes, at least in the market. Their purpose as a playing piece in a card game, and their purpose as a collectible object.
These two purposes are in competition with each other. To appease collectors in Magic’s early years, Wizards came up with the concept of a Reserved List – a set of cards which they promised never to reprint (with some conditions to this promise).
This is interesting as the intention of cards as designed and printed is as game pieces. The collectible part came later, and not by design or intention.
Over the years this promise has changed several times, most recently in 2011. I’ve included a timeline of these changes below, as they make for interesting reading for anyone of the impression that the Reserved List was created once, long ago, and was never changed.
For players the Reserved List has been a disaster. In its early years it barely mattered; all that happened was that cards from Magic’s early years maintained their value.
The simple fact of today is that there are plenty of cards on the Reserved List that could be usefully reprinted, and many cards not on the Reserved List that will likely never be reprinted even if the nature of being on the Reserved List were to change.
Who is the Reserved List even helping? The fact that a card will never be reprinted does not, by itself, make that card valuable. Early cards from Magic’s first two sets, Alpha and Beta are now valuable precisely because they are scarce, not because they won’t be reprinted. If you don’t believe me compare the price of an Alpha Serra Angel to the Dominaria reprint.
One card is worth hundreds of dollars due to its rarity. There aren’t many Alpha cards in circulation and collectors value Magic’s original set. The new card is probably overpriced at 40 cents.
Some cards will maintain their value due to their collectability in spite of reprints. Other cards will not rise in value even if they are never reprinted.
A reddit thread looked at this phenomenon back in 2016. The arguments have changed little since then, and if anything it has become increasingly clear that in modern times the Reserved List (or more correctly, Wizards’ Reprint Policy) is serving neither collectors nor players.
Saffron Olive posted an article about fixing the reserved list (also in 2016) and I think this article illustrates nicely how the current Reprint Policy serves neither players nor collectors but manages to leave both vulnerable to manipulation and speculators.
Chronicles, released in 1996, caused ripples in a game that started 3 years earlier. As the manufacturer created a set with the largest print run yet, the prices of cards in previously short supply dropped over a few weeks. Yes, weeks. Not hours or days. However this caused mild panic in a player base used to seeing prices move either sideways or slightly upwards in the monthly magazines they would use as a price guide. It was a different world.
Into this world came the Reserved List.
The Reserved List is not a solemn promise carved in stone aeons ago. It is a series of changed statements about what cards will and won’t be reprinted. It has changed many times over the years, the last change was in 2011. Since then the list or rather the ‘Reprint Policy‘ has remained the same.
There were several changes to the list in the early 2000s that resulted in cards on the list being removed and reprinted in Standard sets (yes, this happened). Other changes resulted in more cards being added.
For a while it looked as though rares would automatically be added to the Reserved List a few years after the set left Standard, with only a handful of rares set aside for reprints. Wizards talked about a 75%/25% mix of rares from a given set with the greater number going to the Reserved List, never to be reprinted. This too changed, and Wizards announced that no new cards would be added to the Reserved List from Mercadian Masques forward.
This was a fundamental change to the Reserved List. At its original inception, not only would every card originally printed at rare would join the list – but so would 75% of rares printed in future sets. I don’t feel that it’s hyperbole to say the game as we know it would be dead today if that had gone ahead as originally stated.
The Reserved List was clearly a decision made in haste, with little thought of the implications. Once the panic has passed there were soon efforts to undo the damage. Articles began to pop up on the earlier versions of the Wizards website, questioning whether the reprint policy would stay and whether the right cards were even on there.
Two articles stand out. It’s not easy to find them using the Wizards website. This one in 2002 from the then Director of R&D talks about them rethinking their policy.
The main thrust of the article was to talk about cards that were being added to the list, but also to suggest some being removed. The writer was at paints to point out that not all cards being removed would necessarily be reprinted, and called out Demonic Tutor, Sol Ring, Sinkhole, and Psionic Blast as cards that would probably not be reprinted. Of course, all those cards have since been reprinted, many times in the case of Sol Ring.
The article ended thus:
“…wouldn’t it be cool to have Clone back? And I think the price of these old cards would not be adversely affected by a reprint. In fact, the price of the older versions may even go up.
So what do you think? Am I missing something? Do you think the Reprint Policy should be modified to allow Wizards to reprint commons and uncommons from the early basic editions?”
A follow up article appeared a few months later, with the same individual announcing changes to the Reserved List including cards being added and cards being removed.
I want to quote here:
“Commons and uncommons from Limited Edition (Alpha and Beta) were removed from the reserved list due to overwhelming public support for this change.”
You read correctly. Wizards removed cards from the Reserved List in response to people saying so. Like many questions from Wizards, this one was disingenuous. They knew what the answer would be, and Clone was at the printers before they even asked the question – clearly they felt we would agree that having Clone back would be cool. The decision to remove certain cards was already made. Still, their stated reason was that cards were being removed after several years because when asked, 91% of players polled agreed that the cards should be able to be reprinted once more.
To cement this change with players an ‘Ask Wizards’ question was posed the following year:
(I pasted the above as an image just in case the link breaks). The Reserved List was made in such haste that some cards were left off, while others were added which should not have been! Wizards chose to change the list be adding and removing cards as necessary.
While the answer suggests these are the final changes, the Reserved List changed again after this answer was posted.
The Reserved List has changed before. The Reserved List can change again. Cards have been added; cards have been removed.
Since 2011 there have been no changes; and there seems to be little appetite for engagement with the player base over cards on the Reserved List, or even what it means for a card to be on the Reserved List.
When the 2011 change was made, removing the allowance of premium (i.e. foil) versions of Reserved List cards to be printed, no consultation with the players was undertaken. The change was simply announced.
This change did not come from nowhere. The Reserved List card Phyrexian Negator was reprinted in foil as part of the Phyrexians versus the Coalition Duel Deck released in 2010. Somehow, this prompted the change. Why? We don’t know.
Clearly, something happened. Your guess is as good as mine, but whatever discussions occurred after this card was reprinted in accordance with their reprint policy, the decision was taken internally to change the policy and have no more reprints of this type.
The change away from foil printings happened long before Masterpiece sets were conceived. However without the 2011 change, a Masterpiece Underground Sea would have been possible. Not now, though.
The current reprint policy contains this text:
“In consideration of past commitments, however, no cards will be removed from this list.”
An interesting statement, given that cards were removed from the list after being added to it in the past. The precedent is there. The world did not end when Sol Ring was removed, neither did Magic collapse when it was reprinted – several times. Neither did anyone sue Wizards of the Coast.
At times it has been possible to reprint Black Lotus with its original card frame and art, as long as it is printed in French, or to print a foil version of Underground Sea. Neither can be done under the new tightened policy.
Promissory Estoppel. This legal term gets bandied about whenever changes to the Reserved List are suggested. Under promissory estoppel, it is said, Wizards cannot simply reprint cards they have previously promised not to. They could be sued by holders of the original printings if the card subsequently declined in value, the argument says. This is not true.
To put it simply: these cards were sold as game pieces. This is their primary use. If Wizards print similar game pieces, there is no loss of function. You can no more sue Wizards for reprinting Black Lotus than you could sue them for reprinting Tarmogoyf.
Wizards does not control the secondary market. The price of a card might rise even if identical cards are later reprinted, or it might fall if a card is not reprinted but falls out of favour for whatever reason.
As such, a policy to not reprint a card cannot guarantee that card will rise in price if you hold on to it. Promissory estoppel can be made as an argument if injustice (i.e. your card falling in price) can only be avoided by that card not being reprinted. There are other factors at play.
(the above is not legal advice and is presented for entertainment purposes only).
Should the Reserved List be cast aside? In my opinion, no. Better to keep the Reserved List. Better still to make the Reserved List and active, living part of the game moving forward (stay with me here).
It should change though, as it has changed in the past due to changes in the game and the secondary market around the game.
Players need cards to be available, collectors want some avenue for collectability. I think any reprint policy should ensure the first and service the second only where it does not interfere with the first.
If, for example, a series of basic lands were printed with special art by a popular artist, and then Wizards determined that those cards, with their particular art and set symbol, would never be reprinted, players wouldn’t notice, and collectors could have their day.
Yes, I’m talking about the Guru lands.
Here it is, a prima facie example of a special printing of a commonly available card, which has collectible value in spite of the presence of many other identical cards in the game before and since.
So, the Reserved list can, if changed, service collectability while ensuring cards are available players to use to actually play the game.
The key is not to reprint old rare cards in the form they originally appeared. Under my suggested changes, that printing of Phyrexian Negator would not have happened.
I would suggest that cards on the Reserved List never be reprinted with their original card frame, art, or set symbol.
I think this can be made clear to collectors. If your card is added to the Reserved List. It will not be reprinted in the form in which you hold it. The cardface, art and set symbol, will not appear again for that card. That will provide a basis for collectability – but nothing can guarantee a card will become collectable.
To follow on form this I would add cards to the list, progressively, as along as a reasonable amount of time has passed since their original printing. I have chosen 15 years.
What is important for the game of Magic to have is a reprint policy which allows for cards to be available for the game should the custodians of the game judge it appropriate.
I would like to end with a suggested change in wording of the current reprint policy. My additions are in bold, with changes in strikethrough:
To maintain your confidence in the Magic game as a collectible card game, we’ve created this Magic: The Gathering card reprint policy. It explains why we reprint cards and lists which cards from past Magic sets will never be reprinted in their original form.
Why We Reprint Cards
The Magic trading card game has tremendous appeal as both a game and a collectible. For us, however, the Magic game is first and foremost a supreme game of strategy and skill. We choose to reprint cards because we believe (a) the cards we reprint make for enjoyable game play, and (b) all Magic players deserve an opportunity to play with these cards.
Any card that isn’t on the reserved list may be reprinted. However we also recognise that original or rare printings of cards can become collectible separate to their desirability in the game, and we are happy for this to happen wherever it does not damage Magic as a game people can reasonably participate in.
The complete list of reserved cards appears at the end of this document. Reserved cards will never be printed again in a functionally identical form or appearance. A card is considered functionally identical to another card if it has the same card type, subtypes, abilities, mana cost, power, and toughness. A card is considered identical in appearance if it has the same art, card frame, or set symbol as its original printing.
Cards will become Reserved where:
If both the above conditions are true, a card is eligible to become Reserved. Cards will become Reserved on December 31 each year. We will announce which cards are to become Reserved no later than December 15 of that same year.
cards will be added to the reserved list in the future. No cards from theMercadian Masques set and later sets will be reserved. In consideration of past commitments, however, no cards will be removed from this list. The exclusion of any particular card from the reserved list of Reserved cards doesn’t indicate that there are any plans to reprint that card.
The reprint policy applies to both English and non-English cards.
This reprint policy only applies to physical, printed cards. It does not apply to cards released on Magic: The Gathering Online or in any other digital distribution.
All policies described in this document apply only to tournament-legal Magic cards.
Premium Cards A previous version of this policy allowed premium versions of cards on the reserved list to be printed. Starting in 2011, no cards on the reserved list will be printed in either premium or non-premium form.
Wizards of the Coast may print special versions of cards not meant for regular game play, such as oversized cards.
Complete List of Reserved Cards
(the list will grow each year)
A small change, but potentially a large change. What do you think?