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How to Dismantle the Reserved List

The reserved list. Along with mana screw, it’s everyone’s favorite thing to hate about Magic. Unlike Magic’s mana and land system, the reserved list doesn’t need to exist to preserve the game we love. But I’d like to argue that the solution is not so simple as “abolish the reserved list.” It has to be done in a precise, surgical manner, because once it happens there’s no going back.

I think that it’s important to be honest with ourselves about the reserved list. We should acknowledge both the benefits and the harms of the list without bias or hyperbole. If we’re truly committed to seeing it go, it has to be for honest reasons and for the health of the game as a whole, and not for our personal benefit.

Let’s get a few things straight about Magic. Wizards of the Coast is in the business of selling packs. Yes, they sell some supplemental products. Yes, the cards in these packs are game pieces for one of the best games ever made. But if packs aren’t selling, Magic’s dying. That’s their business model. People have suggested Magic should be a Living Card Game. They tried that with Collector’s Edition two decades ago, and decided against it. Like it or hate it, that’s not the model they’re going for. Don’t expect Magic to ever be super cheap. Even if the reserved list goes away, they want chase cards to exist. Prestige and aspiration are powerful things.

So how do they convince us to spend our hard-earned dollars on cardboard? Well, there’s an implicit understanding that these pieces of cardboard will hold at least some value. They won’t reprint them to oblivion, and they will be careful to control power creep. They don’t explicitly acknowledge the value of the cards but let’s be honest, we do a fist-pump when we crack something valuable. Magic’s not an investment, but your collection won’t be worthless in 2 years if you take a short break from the game either.

We have 22 years of trust to build this understanding. The reserved list is a relic of the past, created when Magic was in the middle of a slump of poor sets from Fallen Empires through Homelands. Chronicles was a wide reprint of highly collectible cards and early adopters felt betrayed. We can acknowledge the necessity of the reserved list at the time while still saying it’s time to go. It served its purpose in building trust between Wizards and the player base, but perhaps now we can rescind it.

Two Quick Myths to Dispel about the Reserved List

“Legacy is dying”: This, and its older brother “Vintage is dead,” are untrue. While the reserved list may be throttling the growth of the formats, they’re still growing, the metagames are healthier than ever, and with the number of Revised dual lands out there, Legacy tournaments would have to near a player count of 100,000 before there’d be a serious concern about card availability. The Eternal communities are quite generous, and people work hard to lend cards to those in need.

“Everyone wants to see it go”: This isn’t quite true, and it’s not just the dealers/investors with fat portfolios. Support for the reserved list is unpopular, but there are more people out there who do support it than you think, but they don’t want to have to be “that guy” to speak out. We all feel it to a lesser extent, when you buy something and the price drops, or the card gets announced for a reprint. That feeling, rational or not, that you wasted your money. No one wants to be the one left holding the bag, and dropping a wad of cash on cards right before a theoretical announcement leaves a sour taste in some people’s mouths.

A Slow, Careful Retraction

The reserved list is not something where they can just rip the bandaid off. It’s a lot more like if you had a tree growing in the middle of a house. Maybe when the house was being built, the tree was structural support, but now that the house is complete, it’s not needed. Hell, maybe the tree’s growth is tearing up the house’s foundation and it has to go. But you can’t just cut it out. We don’t know exactly what’s leaning on the tree and what’s tangled in its branches and roots. It has to be well thought-out or the house will come down with the tree.

Here are some real concerns if the reserved list just goes away in one stroke:

First and most mildly, people will assume Wizards has no intention of preserving prices any longer. Wizards will lose the ability to sell Masters sets and other premium products. Who’s going to pay $10 for packs of cards that’ll tank in value the next time Wizards wants to go for another cash grab? Remember, they’re in the business of selling packs as their primary revenue source.

Secondly, and more worrying, people will assume Wizards is in financial trouble. They’ll figure that this is a last-ditch effort to inject money into the company. Did they decide to do this, or is this a mandate from Hasbro? What’s left to do after this? What’s going to happen to Magic if this doesn’t work?

Thirdly, people will assume Magic itself is circling the drain. We don’t get access to the sales figures, but this is a pretty desperate gambit to build hype. People read signals where there aren’t any all the time, so Wizards has to be careful if they’re going to put out such a bold signal. This worry could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy as people sell out to get out while there’s still cash to grab. Panic-selling leads to more panic, and with a soft singles market, pack sales may slump. Even if Wizards and Magic eventually recover, it could take years.

So What’s the Damage?

We know the risks, we’ve dispelled the myths, but there’s got to be real, legitimate damage, right? Absolutely. Right now we’re seeing the reserved list used as a tool to leverage profit from the game in a way that’s hurtful not only to players but also to the game. The closest analogy I can see to this behavior in “real life” is actually in real estate. In cities where apartments and condos are scarce and expensive, we’re seeing foreign investors buying in, not for use, but as an investment. This causes further artificial scarcity, hurting those who just want to live in the city and causing bubble conditions.

As we all know, bubbles can burst. The price of Arcbound Ravager is real. People want to play Affinity because it’s a sweet deck. Reserved list cards, on the other hand? People are holding onto massive numbers of these cards as an investment. If people ever decide that Magic’s passé and they move on, the ensuing sell-off might tank prices enough to make people question the game’s solvency as a whole. The bubble has to be deflated, but slowly.

Deflating the Bubble

Step zero: Convince the lawyers. Without their go-ahead, nothing gets done.

Step one: Decide the date that the reserved list will be repealed. This should be pretty far off. I’m thinking three years, minimum, and probably more like five years. The goal is to give people time to adjust to the idea that these cards will be reprinted and react without the need for panic.

Step two: Craft a very careful message. Lead with lessons learned over the years, from Chronicles to Modern Masters, to Eternal Masters. Discuss reprints of chase rares like Thoughtseize and fetchlands. Let people know that Magic has lasted for 25 years because of the community’s trust, and only with their trust will it last another 25 years.

Step three: Tighten security, and then after the 3/5/7-year period has elapsed, release them in whatever manner is appropriate, whether it’s Masters editions, Expeditions and Hidden Treasures, or as reprints if appropriate. Narwhal and Thunder Spirit would love to see Limited play, I’m sure.

Yeah, this is a very long-term plan, but it’s necessary. It gives Wizards ample time to gauge impact, backlash, and praise of the decision. The knowledge that a card can and will be reprinted should cause some cards to make their way back to the market. Me? I’m keeping my dual lands because I want to have them to play with, but that guy with 300 dual lands might decide to let some of them go. Even without any reprints, we’re going to see the market loosen up a bit.

Finally, be patient with Wizards of the Coast. They appear to genuinely be trying. They have a lot of people to cater to, and a lot of interests to consider and balance. Modern Masters and Eternal Masters show that they do genuinely want to find venues for reprints. For all I know, I’ve accidentally guessed their secret plan and I can expect a stern letter (or a job offer) for writing this. We do know that even Magic’s most notable representatives like Mark Rosewater detest the list’s existence. So let’s trust that they’re working on finding a way to eliminate it.

Because I want Magic to continue to thrive and my ideal version of Magic is found in the Eternal formats, where players sling powerful spells and do absurd things, I want to share that version of Magic with everyone. I’m sure that Wizards does, too.

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