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Magic: The Gathering—The Origin of the Collectible Card Game Gold Rush

by Michael Barnes (01/09/12).

Magic: The Gathering cards. Some of the early cards, issued in the early 1990s and were discontinued, could be worth some major money. If you come across some of these cards in the flea market or estate sale searches, it may be worth the two dollars to buy them up. There may be a $500 card in there.

When I was in college back in the halcyon days of the early 1990s, I remember sitting in a literature class waiting for the professor to arrive. A couple of students were talking about a new card game that they had been playing, describing mechanics and how it was packaged kind of like baseball cards.

You had to buy a “starter” deck and then smaller “booster” packs to build up your collection, and from that collection you made a custom deck with which to play the game. It was called Magic: The Gathering, designed by Richard Garfield and published by a then obscure company called Wizards of the Coast, now a subsidiary of Hasbro.

Being a game player, I had to check it out for myself. I went to every comic and game shop in town and it was sold out everywhere—not necessarily due to blockbuster sales, but also because the initial print runs (now referred to as the “Alpha” and “Beta” sets) were small. My birthday arrived after a couple of months of fruitless searching, and my girlfriend at the time gave me a pile of Japanese comic books. I told her about the game, and she said “oh yeah, they had that on the counter at the shop when I bought these books. I raced to the store and sure enough, they had both the mythical starters and boosters. I bought everything they had.

Over the next couple of years, my group of friends became completely enamored with the game, as did many game players and even some folks from outside of the hobby. Magic became a hot commodity, not just for those who actually used the cards, but for those who saw them as a valuable collectible. Certain cards out of the initial sets that were discontinued—namely the fabled “Black Lotus” and “Mox” stones, along with a few other rarities would become known as the Power Nine—and were fetching prices into the thousands of dollars for full sets. Speculation was rife, and shops that typically traded in traditional collectibles, such as sports memorabilia and coins, were selling cards with a gold-rush mentality, often marking up packs well over retail. New expansion sets were released and quickly sold out, driving the price of individual, sought-after cards through the roof.

The Black Lotus card.

The Mox Sapphire card.

A tournament scene developed, along with an online community that sprung up right around the time that the Internet broke big into the mainstream. Demand for specific cards and combinations of cards exploded as competition flourished. Shops could often make more profit by breaking open the packs and selling the cards individually. A $3-pack of 15 cards might have had a single card worth $25, $30 or even $50 in it. I used to play on Friday nights at a local Denny’s restaurant and the manager of a local game shop would come in with binders filled with singles for sale. He’d leave with more cash in hand than his business likely made that day.

It was an exciting time because the game was red hot and anyone playing games was at least playing casually. I recall going to games and comic conventions in the mid-1990s and there would literally be people sitting in the floor, lining the hallways of the venues, playing the game or engaging in the commerce that it engendered. The money that was changing hands over it was thrilling, and trading cards with other players was as much of a game as the game itself. It was a new frontier for gaming, a completely new concept: the collectible card game (CCG).

Other collectible card games rushed to market. TSR promoted Spellfire, its attempt to move Dungeons and Dragons into the CCG market, but it was badly designed. Fly-by-night publishers shilled any number of CCGs with garish fantasy art and crude game-play, all attempting to convince retailers, the collectors market and game players that these were the next Magic. None were, and not even Richard Garfield’s follow-up games—a CCG based on the popular Battletech property and the brilliant William Gibson-esque Netrunner—failed to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle that was Magic.

Magic 2011 Core Set boxed sets. Will any of these cards be worth more than any others? Probably not, but players and collectors will be buying them anyway.

Very few collectible card games have managed to come anywhere near the sensation or long-term viability that Magic created. Kid’s games, like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, have had success, but their popularity in recent years has waned along with the rising popularity and accessibility of video games and other digital surrogates. When I was running my game shop from 2004-08, there were still publishers trying desperately to convince me and other retailers that their game was the next Magic. I’ve seen so many CCGs—some very good, most very bad—come and go, but none will ever have the lasting impact or long-standing value that the original article had. Magic is still widely played every day in game shops, in dorms and on dining room tables.

For the collector, yard-sale picker or attic excavator today, Magic cards can still command surprising value and shouldn’t be overlooked. Early sets, such as the aforementioned Alpha and Beta print runs—along with the subsequent Unlimited printing—are very sought after, expensive and rare. Likewise, cards from early expansion sets that haven’t been reprinted in the game’s nearly 20-year history of publication can be quite expensive. The card that some kid used as a bookmark in that book you found at a thrift store could be worth $500. But more common cards—and there are millions of them likely in circulation—could be literally worthless.

Watch this space over the coming weeks for some tips on how to collect, assess and evaluate Magic singles and collections. There could be gold in them thar cards!

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.


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3 Responses to “Magic: The Gathering—The Origin of the Collectible Card Game Gold Rush”

  1. Margaret Siemers says:

    I am 57 and I love to play this game. It takes skill and thinking, and the Art work you get to look at while you wait for your turn to come round is fantastic! Wish you could order full size posters of some of the card art.

    • stephanie davis says:

      Hello me and my husband have an older maybe one of the original 90′s starter pack with a play Matt and two packs says starter level advanced pack b are they worth more opened or not how much would this go for someone please contact me on facebook name is tuba davis picture of two wrists with a tattoo as profile pic or at thank you

  2. Matt says:


    i have a question. I attended an estate auction several months ago and bought a large lot of sports cards. in a binder in these cards were many of these magic cards. i know nothing about them. recently while talking to a friend im mentioned these. he knew something about these and checked out what i had. he tells me that i am sitting on a small fortune. i have several of what he says is the best card, the black lotis. i have four of these in the front of the binder. they seem to be in perfect condition. if these are meant to be played with, they obviously never have as they look like they just came out of the package. there are at least a few hundred other cards in this set that he says are just as rare but not as valuable. he says they are around 1992. he has offered me five thousand for the entire set. thats alot of money, especially since i only paid $75 for the entire lot of cards. im thinking they could be worth more. any advice is welcome.

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