The Reserved List: HTPMTG Part 21

Today’s topic doesn’t fall in line with things I want to talk about in this portion of the blog. While I have casually mentioned this topic before, there seems to be a huge uproar in the community lately about this topic. Up until now, I have avoided it because its comes across as taboo most of the time. We, the community, and Wizards have just let it be for years now, but it is causing problems more so now than ever before. Drum roll please; today’s topic is the reserved list. *dramatic sound effects*

For those of you that don’t know, the reserved list is a reprint policy that Wizards came up with back in 1996 in response to the outcry surrounding Chronicles. Chronicles was an all reprint set. Cards that were worth money lost some of their value which upset collectors so Wizards came up with the reserved list and basically promised to never reprint cards on that list ever again. They claim that this saved the game from the same fate as other fads that came and went during the 90s; I wasn’t playing the game back then so I cannot confirm the validity of that statement, but I can argue that the Pokemon TCG is still alive after 20+ years and they don’t have a reserved list, at least not officially nor that I could find evidence of. Some members of the MTG community believe that Wizards could face legal action if they went back on that promise, while others believe that even if a class action lawsuit was a viable option, it may never even get off the ground. Collectors/MTG Finance fear that if the reserved list was abolished/ignored and cards were reprinted, their precious power 9, original dual lands and other cards would become worthless. As you can see, it’s a very controversial topic, but there is more to the argument than that.

As for the harm that the reserved list is responsible for, it is about supply and demand. Since it dates back to 1996, 24 years ago, cards that are on that list are in very short supply. Many of the cards on the reserved list are staple cards of Vintage, Legacy, and Commander (which is the biggest format at the moment). With Commander alone, the demand for these cards is very high. Low supply and high demand equals a high price; it’s economics 101. In this case, if the reserved list remains as it is, it’s only going to get worse. Because the reserved list exists Wizards cannot increase the supply of these cards, which means they will stay unaffordable and inaccessible to a vast majority of the player base. This will lead to older formats, Legacy and Vintage in particular, dying off if they haven’t already. Commander will stay around, but there will be some kind of response or reaction to those players who do build decks with reserved list cards.

It should be noted that the reserved list has changed over time. It’s not something that is set in stone. At first it was all cards that were from Alpha and Beta that did not appear in Fourth Edition or Ice Age, all uncommon and rare cards from Arabian Nights and Antiquities that had not been reprinted with a white border, and all rares from Legends and The Dark that had not been reprinted with a white border. Later, Wizards added the rarest cards from Fallen Empires, Ice Age, and Homelands to the reserved list and any rare card that had not been rotated into the core set of 5th edition would become a reserved list card. In 2002 Wizards decided that no cards after Mercadian Masques would be added to the reserved list, Commons and uncommons from Limited Edition would be removed from the list, which removed some cards, and they made a mistake when they reprinted Feroz’s Ban from Homelands in Fifth Edition, and in response to that mistake, Wizards just decided to remove the card from the reserved list. Fast forward to 2010 and Wizards exploited a loophole when they reprinted reserved list cards in premium form for From the Vault: Relics and Duel Decks: Phyrexia vs. The Coalition. The original intent was that the reserved list cards would not see a reprinting in a main set, therefore premium versions and foil versions were able to be reprinted into supplemental products. They also used this loophole to print several Judge’s Promos of reserved list cards. Of course there was more outcry over this and Wizards closed that loophole. Today there are 572 cards on the reserved list while 23 cards have come off. As is evident, Wizards can change the list as they see fit, and yes it has been met with negative responses, but so have a lot of other things Wizards has done or not done in some cases. For example, not reprinting format staples not found on the reserved list like fetch lands, printing overpowered cards like Oko, Theif of Crowns into Standard, not banning overpowered cards in time like Teferi, Time Raveller, crafting cards for Historic at a rate of 2:1 on MTG Arena, Double Masters VIP packs costing over $100 (USD), foils that curl up like potato chips, unfulfilled Secret Lair orders, Secret Lair Ultimate Edition, getting rid of MSRP, declining quality/value of preconstructed Commander decks, I could go on and on about the negative responses to all of that and more. Wizards seems to pick and choose which issues they correct and which ones they don’t. Of course I can also say that we, the players, are probably always going to find something to complain about.

Now the whole reason that the reserved list exists is to maintain the value of those cards found on the list, even though a lot of cards on the list are not valuable. It’s a fact nowadays that older cards will hold value regardless of reprints. If we look at Shivan Dragon, a card not on the reserved list, but was printed way back in Alpha and has been reprinted over and over again, we can see evidence of that. An Alpha Shivan Dragon is worth about $3,000 (USD) according to tcgplayer. Today’s newer versions are practically given away for free to new players in welcome decks. On the secondary market, most of the Shivan Dragon reprintings are worth less than $1 (USD). This is not the only instance of this. Look at Serra Angel, look at Lightning Bolt, Counterspell, Lord of Atlantis, Birds of Paradise. Don’t just stick to Alpha versions, look at the Beta versions, Unlimited Versions, and so on. All of these examples negate the argument that the reserved list helps the old cards on the list retain their value.

There are all kinds of arguments out there for what would happen if Wizards abolished the reserved list; I’ve looked at them all and I am no legal expert, but I know enough to get by. It mainly involves contract law and promissory estoppel. I’ll spare you the boredom and not make this any longer than it needs to be, but if you want to go look up pages and pages of arguments about why the reserved list cannot go away, go ahead; I would encourage you to get informed. If you do, remember that it is all speculation about what could happen, not what will happen. Even from that lens, it’s not pretty. However, for as many arguments exist for keeping the reserved list, there are as many ways people have suggested for getting around it.

Promo foil printings was one idea, however as I stated earlier, that loophole was quickly closed. That goes for everything, Judges Promos, Secret Lairs, Masterpieces, Super Premium packs that can only be purchased directly from Wizards at the price of your first born child, you name it. If it shares a name with a card on the reserved list, it cannot be printed.

Another idea was functional reprints. What that means is printing a card that functions similar to a card on the reserved list, but does not share its name. For example, Black Lotus is an artifact that costs 0 and you can tap and sacrifice it to produce 3 mana of any color. A functional reprint, would be something that does that exact same thing, but would probably be called White Lotus or something along those lines. I do like this idea, however Mark Rosewater himself said that this would be against the spirit of the reserved list. This also includes the solution of adding “Snow-covered” to the card names, specifically the original dual lands. Now fixed versions of these cards appear to be okay as is the case with Ancestral Vision and Ancestral Recall. However it’s not the same thing and depending on the wording, it might also violate the spirit of the reserved list.

An new idea I have come across is that through power creep, Wizards could print cards that are better than those on the reserved list. There is big problem with this one. Some of the cards on the reserved list, not all but some, are so busted by today’s standards that they make Oko, Theif of Crowns look balanced. Cards like the original dual lands, Black Lotus, the moxen, and Ancestral Recall represent the pinnacle of power level that Wizards will allow. We will never see a card like Ancestral Recall that costs 1 blue mana that will let you draw more than 1 card, let alone 3 or more. If we do, it will be in a un-set so it won’t be legal anywhere outside of that particular limited environment. Ancestral Vision functions like an Ancestral Recall, but you have to wait four turns until you can draw three cards so it’s not a better version.

Another Idea is to ban the reserved list. As good as that sounds, the whole reason this discussion is happening in the first place is because some of the cards on that list are staples of eternal formats. If you ban them, they are not playable anymore and therefore not valuable. However, in the same breath, you can ban them from your own playgroup if you see fit or you can develop a new format that puts those cards on the banned list. I don’t foresee any problem with that, so maybe the creation of a new eternal format that does not allow reserved list cards is what we need.

Some players suggest using counterfeit cards or proxies. In casual games maybe you can get away with counterfeits. In tournament play, sanctioned or not, that’s a very bad idea. Proxies on the other hand, can be acceptable to protect your cards from damage, as long as you own copies of that card. Basically, treat your proxies like the double-faced card spot holders from sets like Innistrad and it should be okay, even in tournaments, but don’t just take my word for it; ask an official and make sure that they are okay with it beforehand. That being said, counterfeit cards are designed to be passed off as the real thing and should not be tolerated. Proxies are just placeholders either for protecting cards you own or play testing deck ideas before spending money. Some stores will offer unsanctioned Vintage and Legacy events where proxies are legal. Except for players getting to play with the cards they want, this proposal really doesn’t solve anything. The reserved list is still in place, the supply of actual cards is not being increased, and the prices are still inflated. It’s just a temporary fix.

Now for the biggest problem surrounding the reserved list: Wizards claims that they cannot officially acknowledge the secondary market. They cannot acknowledge that players sell cards for money and they cannot acknowledge that the cards you are opening in booster packs have any monetary value. When you take into account that players do sell cards on the secondary market and that the cards which are randomly put in booster packs are worth money, it’s basically gambling. Everyone who has ever cracked packs looking for valuable cards knows this. Sometimes you get your money back in card value and sometimes, most of the time actually, you don’t. You are basically playing those lottery scratch cards when you do that. If Wizards was to ever acknowledge these things, it could open up a legal can of worms. I can’t speak for other countries and their laws on gambling, but here in the states, gambling is heavily regulated and you have to be 18 years old. Since Magic is targeted at 13-year-olds, the recommended age, Wizards would be in huge trouble over that alone, potentially even leading to the death of Magic. So Wizards cannot acknowledge the secondary market, but doesn’t the reserved list, a portion of their own reprint policy, acknowledge the secondary market? It sure does. The reserve list was put in place to protect the value of older cards, but Wizards cannot claim that any card has value on the secondary market otherwise they could get in trouble for marketing gambling to minors with their booster packs. Now you could try to argue that the cards on the reserved list have value while those not on the reserved list do not, but good luck trying to prove that one in court. Between getting rid of the reserved list and violating gambling laws, getting rid of the reserved list would be the better option. Yes, it has the potential to be a huge legal problem if they do that, but the consequences would be preferential to the consequences of violating gambling laws which could kill the game entirely, maybe even the company. Like I said, I’m no legal expert, but I do know that in a court of law, you have to prove it one way or the other and there could be a way to disprove the above argument. I wouldn’t be surprised.

As you can probably tell by now, the reserved list causes all kinds of problems, not just from a legal aspect, but between players. There are those for it and those that are not, as well as those that claim to be against it, but then stubbornly argue tooth and nail for it. Solutions have been offered and arguments debunked or reinforced, but at the end of the day, through some reasoning, however rational or irrational, the reserved list seems here to stay. That’s just my two cents after falling down this rabbit hole. I know someone may be upset by my argument and will comment “blah blah blah, you’re wrong, blah blah blah,” and I don’t care, so go ahead and knock yourself out. All of us veteran players know it’s a divisive topic and you’ll only be proving that point to the beginner/novice players. That concludes this post. If you want further reading, you’re going to have to do your own research. I encourage you to do that and form your own opinions and solutions in regards to the reserved list. Don’t just accept whatever I, or anyone else, may tell you without questioning it.

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