Insider Trading – Should Wizards Do Away With The Reserved List?

read Ben Bleiweiss every week... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, November 20th – The Reserved List is a list of 572(!) cards that Wizards of the Coast has promised to never reprint in tournament-legal form. But is the Reserved List serving as intended in its current incarnation? Could Wizards of the Coast amend the Reserved List without causing major backlash? And just why is there a Reserved List, anyhow? The answers to all these questions and more can be found in this week’s Insider Trading!

The Reserved List (which can be found here) is a list of 572(!) cards that Wizards of the Coast has promised to never reprint in tournament-legal form. From the Wizards of the Coast website:

Reserved Cards

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. A card is considered functionally identical to another card if it has the same card type, subtypes, abilities, mana cost, power, and toughness. No cards will be added to the reserved list in the future. No cards from the Mercadian 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 doesn’t indicate that there are any plans to reprint that card.

Why did Wizards of the Coast make a Reserve List in the first place? How did they determine which cards were or were not going to be put on the Reserve List? What purpose does the Reserve List serve to Magic, years after the establishing of the Reserve List? Let’s take a trip back through the annals of time to get the answers to these questions, and then come back to the present to view the Reserve List with a modern-day sensibility.

QUESTION #1) How did the Reserve List come to be?
Magic debuted in 1993, and quickly went through four printings of the base set in under two years – Alpha, Beta, Unlimited, and Revised (also known as 3rd Edition – Alpha/Beta were considered, for numbering purposes, as one edition). By the time 4th Edition was released in 1995, there were four expansion sets: Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, and The Dark.

Revised was the first base set to incorporate cards from the expansion sets – according to Crystalkeep.com, 35 cards got the heave-ho from Unlimited (mostly due to being either overpowered, such as Moxes, or too narrow or confusing, such as Raging River or Camouflage), to make way for 39 cards from Arabian Nights and Antiquities.

Magic had burst onto the scene in 1993, but the explosion happened around Legends – this was the first “full” expansion set (Arabian Nights and Antiquities each had less than 100 Unique cards, where Legends had 310). Legends sold out almost overnight, and started selling for a multiple of MSRP within almost as short a period of time. People couldn’t get enough Magic, and prices for both packs and singles started going bonkers! Cards such as Carrion Ants, Killer Bees, and the Elder Dragon Legends were easily commanding $20-$25 apiece, and carried the strength of their prices through the release of The Dark.

4th Edition and Chronicles were released in early and late 1995, respectively. Both reprinted heavily from the first four expansions; 4th Edition added 122 cards (versus only 50 removed), and Chronicles was filled entirely with reprints, including the eponymous Elder Dragon Legends. The secondary market for Magic took a humungous hit; cards that were selling for $20-$25 dropped to the $3-$5 range. Rares were reprinted as Uncommons, circulation of some of these cards were 10-20x the circulation of the original sets (estimates put the print run of 4th Edition in the 500 MILLION card range, versus 35 Million for Legends – and the disparity was much greater for Arabian Nights at 5 Million cards).

Players and collectors were up in arms, and there was a massive backlash against Chronicles and (to a degree) 4th Edition. People felt like the collectible part of Magic being a Collectible Card Game was not reliable, and that the value of their cards (which they were paying good money for) was ephemeral. In order to allay the fears of the players, Wizards of the Coast established the reserve list.

QUESTION #2) Which cards are on the reserve list, and why?
The first iteration of the Reserve list was simple enough – any card that had not been reprinted by 4th Edition could no longer be reprinted in a future Magic set. This included cards from Unlimited through The Dark. For future sets, any card that wasn’t reprinted in the next base set, and had come out since the last set was released, could never again be printed. For 5th Edition, this closed off Fallen Empires, Ice Age, Alliances, and Homelands, save for the cards reprinted in 5th itself. For 6th Edition, this ended reprinted from Mirage, Visions and Weatherlight.

However, about this time Wizards realized that the reserve list wasn’t really needed much anymore. So about the time of 6th Edition, at which point the reserve list update was about to be made, Wizards amended the policy. Instead of throwing EVERY card on the list, A) only Rares would be put on the reserve list (freeing up Jade Statue for an eventual 9th Edition reprint!), and B) Only select Rares from Tempest through Urza’s Destiny would be on the reserve list. Every card printed after Urza’s Destiny would be fair game for reprinting in a tournament-legal (or functionally identical) format.

As of today, this rule has only been broken for the printing of Judge Foil Promos (Intuition, Gaea’s Cradle, Yawgmoth’s Will, Deranged Hermit) and a Player Rewards card (Powder Keg). No cards on the reserve list have been made available through a commercial release, in a tournament-playable format (this, of course, does not count the 1997-2004 World Championship decks, which have gold borders and a different card back, and therefore are not tournament playable).

QUESTION #3) Does the Reserve List make sense, in its current form?
In a word, no. In two words, absolutely not! In three words? Yes and No.

That’s enough dramatics for now, don’t you think?

The reserve list does serve a valuable purpose, and that is to maintain the value of some older cards that a lot of people have spent a lot of money on. The Power 9 (Black Lotus, Moxen, and friends), The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, Library of Alexandria and friends are all cards protected from wanton reprinting (and devaluement). I’ve heard it said that the day that Wizards reprints the Power Nine in a tournament-legal format is the day that Magic is done, because they’re cashing in on one last money grab; and while I’m not sure I 100% agree with that, I tend to lean in that direction on most days. (Other days, I lean in the direction that says reprinting the Power Nine would infuse thousands of new players in the Vintage scene, a tournament group which could benefit from a lot of new blood all at once.)

However, the Reserve list, in its current form, is completely ridiculous. When Wizards of the Coast bans or restricts cards, they use the utmost care. They research, they debate, and in the end, after a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and tournament results, cards are banned. Sure, they call it the banhammer, but it’s surgery; removing a sick part of a format in order to make the entire format healthy. Banning and restricting is necessary surgery, whereas the Reserve list, with its arbitrary nature, is truly the giant hammer smashing cards into oblivion.

Let’s talk about the two eras of the Reserve List.

Unlimited through Weatherlight
These were the sets that fell under the all-encompassing clause of “if it was Rare, and it hasn’t been reprinted by the next base set, it’s gone forever.” Let’s take a look of some of the cards on this list:

Black Lotus
Mox Pearl
Urza’s Miter
The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale
The Abyss
Dwarven Armorer
Null Rod
Time Walk
Teferi’s Imp

You get the idea here. Of the cards on the reserve list, there are four categories. Let’s assume that we’re talking about the reserve list in terms of reprints either in the Base Set, or in a Time Spiral/Timeshifted type expansion set (so you can have some more complicated cards). Let’s put these into some broad categories:

1) Cards that are too powerful to reprint.
The Power Nine, Mishra’s Workshop, Bazaar of Baghdad. This is self-explanatory. Most of the cards on this list are restricted in Vintage, banned in Legacy, and would be unbalancing to a competitive Standard (and likely, Extended) environment. These are represented in the smallest numbers on this list.

2) Cards that are no longer supported by Wizards.
Ante cards (Contract from Below), mechanics that no longer exist (Enchant World), expansion-specific cards (City in a Bottle, Golgothian Cylix). These are all cards that don’t really have a place in Magic at this point, and should not be confused with mechanics that could be relevant, but are currently discontinued (such as banding, which technically could be reprinted without much of a problem outside of rules issues). These cards appear in roughly the same number as the Too Powerful list.

3) Everything else.
Every other card on the Reserve List, be it a little too powerful, a little underpowered, truly awful, powerful-but-not-broken; 90%+ of the Reserve list is made up of cards that, if they were reprinted, would not make anyone bat an eyelash. This includes almost every Reserved card in Antiquities (14/18), almost every Reserved card out of Legends (59/72), EVERY Reserved card out of The Dark (23/23), EVERY Reserved card out of Fallen Empires (27/27), almost every Reserved card out of Ice Age (49/50), almost every Reserved card out of Homelands (34/35), EVERY reserved card out of Alliances (41/41), almost every reserved card out of Mirage (81/83), almost every reserved card out of Vision (39/40), EVERY reserved card out of Weatherlight (39/39) for a total of 405 out of 427 total cards (or 94.8%) from the post-Arabian Nights through pre-Tempest reserve list that could come off the list.

Unless, of course, Aberoth and Goblin Bomb are threats.

Tempest through Urza’s Destiny
Here’s where things get really weird; there really is no rhyme or reason why certain cards are on the Reserve List (Aluren and Gaea’s Cradle side-by-side with Escaped Shapeshifter and Carnival of Souls), whereas other cards (Reflecting Pool, for instance) are free to be reprinted in future sets (even if it is ten years separated).

And hey, you know what happened when Reflecting Pool got reprinted?

It went from $5 to $25! That’s right! A Tempest-era card, one that hadn’t seen play in going on a decade, one that was right alongside Avenging Angel, Orim, Samite Healer and Sarcomancy, got reprinted and quintupled in value!

And that’s not all – out-of-print cards, especially tournament playables, seem to always go up in value when they are reintroduced to Standard! The pain lands (Adarkar Wastes and Friends) halved in value when they were cut from 8th Edition, and went back and doubled when they were reintroduced in 9th. Savannah Lions? From $1 rare to $6 powerhouse in 8th and 9th Edition. Time and time again, cards that have been reprinted into tournament-playability have seen a marked increase in value.

In short, the Reserve List is having the exact opposite of its intended effect on the value of hundreds of Magic cards!

The Reserve List was established to help maintain the values of cards, lest they be reprinted into valuelessness; but with the evolution of the Pro Tour, tournament Magic in general, and 15 years of hindsight, how can anyone look at the Reserve List, as it currently exists and say it’s a “Good thing?” I don’t think anyone in good conscience could say that. The excuses Wizards could use for not changing it is “Well, we made this promise a decade ago, so we’re not going back on it”, but seriously guys…

That was a decade ago. You made the Reserve List, you changed the rules of the Reserve List while abandoning it, and I bet that if you held a poll, and put those 405 cards on my above list to a vote (not “Should we reprint them” but “should we be ALLOWED to reprint them”), you’d have an overwhelming majority of players vote in favor of freeing those cards from eternal banishment. You wouldn’t want to do away with the Reserve List entirely, but you’d want to free non-threats, potential reprints, and other such oddities from the list.

Maybe the Reserve List should look more like the Legacy Banned or Vintage Restricted Lists; maybe the Reserve List should be redone from scratch, because I think it does serve a valuable purpose for the cards that need protecting; but in general, the Reserve List is lazy, short-sighted, anachronistic, and should be restructured to make sense, and not be a promise to a group of players that mostly don’t exist anymore, and even more, wouldn’t care about the change even if they do.

I should know, I’m one of them.

I’m taking next week off for Thanksgiving, but I’ll see you all in two weeks when I tackle a topic that I’ve wanted to write about since this column was published back in June. See you all in 14 days, and have a great Thanksgiving!