Insider Trading – Foreign Cards (Part 1 of 2)

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Wednesday, October 1st – Magic is truly a global game! Cards are printed in multiple languages each set release, from English to Russian to Japanese. Ever wondered what your non-English card are worth? Do non-Americans value certain language cards over others? In today’s edition of Insider Trading, Ben takes a look at the history of the foreign card, and gives some advice about their values!

Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of Insider Trading! Over the years, Magic has been printed in over a dozen languages, and been distributed in countless countries across the globe. In this week’s article, I’m going to take a look at the value of foreign Magic cards, and talk about why some are worth more than English versions, and some less.

A quick point of clarification, before I continue: I use the term “foreign” to mean non-English cards; I know that to someone in Italy, the English version of a card is the “foreign” card, and the Italian language edition is the “native” version. For the sake of simplicity, I’m using my own perspective to call a card foreign (again, non-English), though I appreciate that I have readers from across the globe, and a card I refer to as foreign might be one from your own native tongue and country!

Let’s have a brief history of foreign cards. Magic debuted in 1993, and quickly the game spread to a global level; by 1994, Magic expanded into three European languages. The first was Italian; Italian Magic cards debuted with the Legends set (the first large-scale foreign Magic release). Shortly thereafter, the Revised edition debuted in three separate languages: Italian, German, and French.

Back in those days, the rule of print was that when a base set debuted in a certain language, the cards were issued as a black-bordered set. Because of this, the first printings of Italian, German, and French revised were Black Bordered. This means that while our Revised/3rd Edition was White Bordered, parts of Europe were enjoying Foreign Black Bordered Dual Lands, Demonic Tutors, Sol Rings, and Lightning Bolts. The game was so successful that Wizards went to a second print run, except this one was White Bordered. So for 3rd Edition/Revised, there are both Foreign Black Bordered and Foreign White Bordered versions of each of those three languages. Typically, a Foreign Black Bordered card is referred to as FBB, whereas a Foreign White Bordered card is referred to as FWB.

Wizards also planned on releasing a special Revised edition specifically for England, but they were unhappy with how the color palate on the set turned out – many cards were oversaturated, and the Hurricane had a Blue border instead of a Green border. This release was supposed to be destroyed, but a very small number of cases made their way to the general public – the majority to England, and a small amount (of a small amount) to Texas (of all places!). These cards are distinguishable immediately because they have a 1994 copyright line (other English Revised cards have no date on their copyright line, and 4th Edition has a 1995 date on the copyright line). They are extremely rare, and have been dubbed the “Summer Magic” edition. This, in fact, is the rarest complete-set release in all of Magic; Basic lands from Summer Magic sell for a solid $30-$50 each, and the Dual Lands have hit in the several thousand dollar range!

Several new languages debuted with 4th Edition; Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean all began in 1995. Immediately, Japanese cards became the most popular foreign language release, ahead of Chinese and Korean. The reason for this is two-fold; One, the game caught fire in Japan, and so the interest (and trading) between Japan and the United States was heightened, and Two, because ascetically, the Japanese text was most pleasing. The initial Chinese releases had faded text in the text boxes, making the characters stand out less. Korean fell slightly behind the Japanese sets in popularity, but were a close second up until Korean Magic cards were discontinued with Urza’s Saga.

Wizards of the Coast began releasing Chinese cards in two different dialects starting in 1998 (with 5th Edition) – Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese. This lasted only for Urza’s Saga, Portal, and Portal Three Kingdoms (which I’ll get to in a little bit), was resumed in Invasion, and discontinued for good after Mirrodin. This left the official languages of Magic sets as English, Italian, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Chinese (Simplified) until the introduction of Russian in 9th Edition. This also heralded the first Black-Bordered base set since 4th Edition (when Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese were printed in FBB), which drove the value of Russian 9th Edition to around $5 a pack. This came down after it was announced that all base sets, starting with 10th Edition, would be printed in Black Border.

While most base and expansion sets were printed in every supported language at the time, there were some idiosyncrasies. Up until Shards of Alara, prerelease cards were only issued in one language. Usually this language was English, but Wizards of the Coast decided it would be neat to issue several sets’ worth of cards in non-standard Magic languages. These were:

Raging Kavu (Invasion): Latin
Questing Phelddagrif (Planeshift): Greek
Fungal Shambler (Apocalypse): Sanskrit
Stone-Tongue Basilisk (Odyssey): Arabic
Laquatus’s Champion (Torment): Russian (the only prerelease card language made into an official Magic language, so far!)
Glory (Judgment): Hebrew

Wizards of the Coast stopped this practice as of Silent Specter and Onslaught, but started printing the new prerelease card (in this case, Ajani Vengeant) in several foreign languages for non-American prereleases, making it the first prerelease card available in multiple languages.

I’m surprised it took that long for this to happen, because putting the prerelease card in (essentially) non-readable languages is a horrible idea, because there’s a truism about the value of foreign cards – Foreign cards have a premium value to tournament players and collectors, but lose value to casual players.

The more hardcore players are familiar with card texts, so they look to “pimp” out their decks with the most flashy, rare version of a card possible. Collectors just want to try to get one of everything. Casual players, though? They want to be able to read their cards. Their friends and other members of their playgroups generally want to be able to read those cards as well! While no rules are 100% rigid, experience has shown that casual cards (such as Slivers, fatties, and Coat of Arms) have had less value for foreign language editions, whereas tournament cards (Fetch Lands, Mind’s Desire, Tarmogoyf) have had higher values than their English counterparts. Again, exceptions exist, but it’s the general rule of thumb for foreign cards, and one that we go by at StarCityGames.com when buying and selling foreign cards.

Box sets have traditionally only been released in English – Anthologies, Battle Royale, Beatdown, Deckmasters, and Elves vs. Goblins were not in any other languages. Unhinged and Unglued were both English-only releases (Wizards was not sure the humor would translate well – or was even translatable – to foreign languages!), and Starter 1999 was an English-only release.

Have there been any releases only sold in foreign countries? The answer is yes – Portal Three Kingdoms! The story of the Three Kingdoms is a huge part of the Chinese culture, and Wizards of the Coast released Portal Three Kingdoms (abbreviated as P3K) in only four countries – China, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia. Printed in three languages (Chinese, Japanese, and English), this White-Bordered set release (and why it was only released in White Border has never fully been explained, given that the majority of the cards in this set were first-time cards) is one of the rarest ‘official’ Magic releases. The English version of the set was only sold in Australia and New Zealand, and was never officially distributed in the United States. This is most of the reason why Portal Three Kingdoms (especially the English versions) are worth so much – true rarity, and a small, non-American distribution channel!

Depictions of skeletons are frowned upon by the Chinese government, so several Magic cards have had their artwork changed for Chinese editions, making skeleton-creatures into Zombies or other undead that don’t have bones showing. So for several Chinese versions of Skeletons, there are alternate arts commissioned (or artworks touched up to have skin) for these cards. This is also part of the reason why Skeletons have fallen out of favor as a supported creature type in Magic; there are plenty of undead out there, so why depict the one type that is banned in one of your markets?

That’s a pretty good overview of the history of Foreign Magic cards, and a primer on some of the foreign rarities, terminologies, and broad values of non-English Magic releases. In next week’s edition of Insider Trading, I’ll be taking a more in-depth look at specific cases of foreign Magic cards, including several highly sought-after misprints, rarities, and more specific values so you can determine if your foreign language card is worth more, less or the same as an English version. See you in seven days!