NEW YORK — Magic: The Gathering is strictly a childhood amusement for many, but others retain their passion for it well into adulthood, honing their collections of these trading cards and hunting for valuable examples.
Magic: The Gathering (colloquially known as Magic or MTG) is a tabletop and digital collectible card game created by Richard Garfield. Released in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast (now a subsidiary of Hasbro), Magic was the first trading card game and had approximately 35 million players as of December 2018. More than 20 billion Magic cards were produced in the period from 2008 to 2016, during which time it grew in popularity.
Collectors are willing to pay serious money for the most elusive MTG cards. Some even buy sealed sets, never knowing exactly what’s inside until they’re opened. It could yield only common cards, but it might contain the elusive Black Lotus.
Holding such possibilities was a still-sealed Alpha edition of Magic: The Gathering (MTG) cards that made $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021 at Heritage Auctions. The auctioneer noted that house experts didn’t know what was inside the package and were not suggesting it be opened. Perhaps the owner eventually will open it and find some of the Power Nine, said to be the most powerful MTG cards printed, and known as: Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus, Mox Emerald, Mox Jet, Mox Pearl, Mox Ruby, Mox Sapphire, Timetwister and Time Walk.
Wizards of the Coast released the first two sets of MTG cards in 1993, and they became known as the Alpha set and Beta set. The original black-bordered Alpha set contained 295 cards, which was followed by a white-bordered set, and the Beta set totaled 302 cards. More than 8,000 individual MTG cards have been released since. For serious collectors, the earliest sets are of the most interest, but people target not only specific cards but also those designed by certain artists, as the imagery can be an equally compelling reason to buy.
One of the most coveted cards among the Power Nine is the Black Lotus. A Beta example from 1993 that earned a grade of 9 brought $36,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2022 at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers. Collectors and game players alike appreciate this investment-grade card not only for its power in the game but also its artwork by Christopher Rush.
“The Power 9 — it doesn’t get any better, and that Beta Black Lotus, if you look across the three main grading companies for condition 9 or higher, there are going to be less than 200 cards in existence,” said Travis Landry, a specialist and auctioneer at Bruneau & Co Auctioneers. “I would say with Magic collectors today, you have the investment-driven type who are buying it as a stock and commodity. You then have the old-fashioned collectors who don’t care about grade at all, and are just buying the cards to have them to play with. There are people who will buy Black Lotus for $15,000 that is in horrible played-with condition just so they can have it in their deck when they have a vintage-style game.”
In deference to collectors, Wizards of the Coast established a reserved list of certain cards never to be reprinted (except in non-standard formats or sizes exempt from regular game play) to help protect their value, which has led to some selling for over-the-top prices. The reserved list was published in 1996, 2002 and again in 2010. Most of the Alpha and Beta cards made the reserved list early on, including Ancestral Recall. Illustrated by Ryan Pancoast, a 9.5-graded example of this card realized $31,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2022 at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers. “Of all MTG holy grails, the Power Nine is certainly on every collector’s wish list to complete, with Alpha print being the most coveted,” the auction house noted in its catalog description when it sold the card.
Rarity and demand have kept the market robust. “Magic: The Gathering is still really hot and really strong,” said Landry, explaining that the early MGT cards are rarer than those for Pokemon, which was also a Wizards of the Coast product that debuted in 1999, but in much larger print runs. Besides the first two limited-edition MGT sets, which bring top dollar, rare cards that are staples of game play in a popular format can see an increase in value as well.
Many specialty and expansion sets are of interest to collectors. A Magic: The Gathering Antiquities expansion set from 1994, in a sealed box, went for $36,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Weiss Auctions. The box contained 60 booster packs, each with eight cards.
While most of the top-selling Magic: The Gathering cards are early examples, even contemporary cards attract interest, such as a complete seventh edition foil set from 2001, having all 350 cards, which sold for $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Bodnar’s Auction Sales.
Landry said the game holds such appeal owing to its revolutionary nature, the scarcity of its early editions and its legacy. “Magic: The Gathering is considered the first-ever trading card game. If it wasn’t for Magic: The Gathering, games like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh or Duel Masters would not be here today. It’s the first trading card game that ever existed; it was a game that created a scale of rarity within the cards,” he said, adding, “It made it collectible to people but it was also a strategic card game that was fun to play.”