Last updated on June 18, 2022
Lion’s Eye Diamond | Illustration by Lindsey Look
The “trade” bit is probably the most important when it comes to the “trading card game” that is Magic. But what counts as an even trade? Does your own demand for a card create the value, or is that value better determined by some other metric?
Today I’d like to go over just what makes a card valuable, how to identify valuable cards, and how to price check and sell your own cards on the secondary market.
Let’s get into it!
What Determines a Card’s Value?
Bound in Gold | Illustration by Victor Adame Minguez
A card’s value is determined by its rarity and its demand. A rare card that’s also a playset staple in a popular format has extreme value. The card’s artist signature or alterations can also either increase or decrease its worth.
If it’s on the reserved list and won’t ever be reprinted, that further increases its price since its supply is limited, regardless of increasing demand. All these factors combined result in a card’s final value and how much players are willing to buy and sell it for.
My goal today is to go in-depth on each of these areas and give specific explanations as to how each one impacts the final price.
Which Cards Are Actually Worth Money?
The simplest answer to this question is that cards that are not only desired but also rare enough to warrant a higher price from lack of supply are worth the most.
There are cards that are rare because they were printed long ago, like Talas Warrior, that carry significant prices despite being totally undesired across all formats. These prices are inflated and not an accurate depiction of the market.
The Best Places to Check Prices
Prices aren’t set by any grand establishment. Cards are typically priced based on the market average i.e., the average price it’s being sold for across thousands of resellers like local game stores, individual players, and big organizations like ChannelFireball. There are a lot of sites to get this price from but TCGPlayer’s market average is the most common.
TCGPlayer shows you prices for both normal and foil, all the conditions, and a timeline of what a card’s price has been up to the last year.
The Parts of a Magic Card
There are lots of parts of a Magic card that you should familiarize yourself with if you’re hoping to identify cards for pricing. These parts include the set/expansion symbol, the frame, the color of the border, the rarity, the copyright symbol and date (if applicable), the corners, the foiling, and the art.
The Set/Expansion Symbol
The set symbol, sometimes called the expansion symbol, is the small symbol on the middle section of the card to the right end of the card type box. This is the quickest and most accurate way to identify what set the card was printed in and its rarity.
Later Magic sets (such as Vintage Masters seen in the Force of Will example above), have both the collectors number, set code, and rarity in the lower lefthand corner of the card. These are 069/325, Vintage Masters, and rare, respectively.
No two symbols from different sets are the same to prevent confusion. You can look up set symbols and codes on our sets page to make sure you’re looking at the right one and identify which set it represents.
The Card Frame
A card’s frame refers to the edges of the card on the front and the back. These can be a variety of shapes, colors, and styles which adds or subtracts value from a card. Most cards have a typical black frame and their interior-colored outer section is different based on what set it’s printed in.
The original frame was used for all sets up until Eight Edition when the modern frame was introduced. This lasted all the way up until Core Set 2015 when the new frame that’s still with us today was released. Here’s a great example with Force of Will, which has been printed with all three borders:
There are also special kinds of card frames reserved for only the rarest of cards. These include things like the Strixhaven Mystical Archive cards, the Amonkhet Invocation cards, and special Secret Lair cards. Similarly to foils, these cards carry extremely high price points thanks to both their rarity and since the cards are popular in Constructed play.
The Color of The Border
There are four different border colors on Magic cards: black, white, silver, and gold.
Cards with gold borders are tournament/promotional cards that aren’t legal in any formats.
Silver borders are reserved for Un-sets, which are parody sets that aren’t (usually) legal in any formats.
White border cards were printed in Unlimited, Revised, and a variety of other sets from 1993 to 2000.
Finally, the black bordered cards are all legal sets after 2000 as well as Alpha and Beta. The community usually prefers black-bordered cards both because of the visual appeal and the fact that they don’t show dirt or wear nearly as easily as white-bordered cards.
A card’s rarity helps determine how many are printed in each set, which in turn gives you a general idea of its supply. Mythic cards are opened out of packs far less often than a common. You only ever see a mythic card once out of every eight packs on average, but you see 10 commons out of every draft booster.
See where I’m going with this? A rarer card will have much less supply, and rare cards are often the ones in demand for Constructed decks since they’re also typically stronger.
The Copyright Symbol and Date
Older cards sometimes don’t have set symbols and you have to refer to a variety of factors including the copyright symbol and if there’s a date next to it to figure out what the card is from. The symbol and the date (if there is one) can be found on the bottom left of the card near the artist credits.
A date gives you a guaranteed time period to search for which helps identify exactly which set it’s in. Here’s an excellent graphic that can help you use the copyright symbol (among other things) to distinguish cards and what sets they’re from:
The corners are a less important way to help figure out what set a card is from. The only time you’ll see corners that are more softly rounded than usual is on cards from Alpha. If the card has these extra-round corners and is black-bordered with no set symbol (and a card that was actually printed in Alpha), then you’re holding an Alpha card.
This would be worth quite a bit regardless of the card, so sleeve it up and price check it.
Foiling is the pretty shine on top of cards that sometimes appears behind the rare in any given pack. Foiling is fairly rare and seeing it on a rare or mythic is even more so. Foils are also in high demand by players who want to make their deck as blinged out as possible, so they’re usually 60% to 100% more expensive than the non-foiled version.
It’s also important to note that some older sets didn’t have foiling since WotC only started printing foil cards in Urza’s Legacy.
A card’s art actually matters quite a bit. Certain versions of cards are more desired or popular and are worth more than other versions.
Cards that are printed many times usually have many different art versions, so you’re usually looking at a $0.50 to $1.00 difference. But it’s still something to keep in mind.
White Border vs. Black Border
Black border this, white border that. If you’ve been playing Magic any amount of time then you’ve probably heard of or participated in a debate between white vs. black borders. This a very common topic of discourse. The most common argument is usually that black borders are better than white borders both aesthetically and in terms of not showing wear and dirt.
But white bordered cards were printed in some earlier sets, like Unlimited and Revised, so some highly-demanded older staples are only available with a white border. Those looking to bling out their deck prefer the black-bordered version of the card most of the time, which can drive up the price.
There are also silver-bordered cards, which are cards from Un-sets. These sets are casual-only that are released as fun, non-legal cards. Their silver border helps denote their legality at a glance, which deters their use in competition against unknowing opponents.
This changed a bit with Unfinity. Some cards in the set will have a black border and be tournament legal while others won’t. Instead of having some cards with a black border and some with silver, all of the cards in Unfinity will have a black border, and the non-legal cards that would previously have been silver bordered will be marked with an acorn security stamp instead:
What if There’s No Expansion Symbol or Collector Number?
Some older cards don’t have expansion symbols or collector numbers, which means they can be a little tricky to identify. Luckily no two sets are exactly alike so you can work your way through the revised MTG forensic ID flowchart to correctly identify just what you’re looking at:
The chart essentially goes through a checklist in order of border color, the date on the card (if any), and the language the card is in. This a surefire way to make sure you’re pricing the card correctly and figuring out if it’s even worth anything in the first place.
This may be overkill sometimes since some cards were only ever printed in one or two sets, and sometimes those sets have different borders. You can always search the card name on TCGPlayer; if there’s only one card that comes up that matches it, you’re good to go!
Determining the Condition
Natural State | Illustration by Volkan Baga
Determining a card’s condition is the most important factor when determining its price and demand. Near mint is always easier to sell than lightly or moderately played. The condition is determined by a variety of conditions, but the main way to judge it is a combination of the markings are on the card and how many there are.
Near mint is the easiest to determine, but a card can quickly fall into “lightly played” territory. A near mint card should have basically no wear or scuffing, no bent corners, no whitening on the edges, and very little damage of any kind. It’s okay to have a few tiny marks on the edge, but nothing more.
Lightly played is much more common for cards. Lightly played is slightly worse than near mint and is distinguished by more small imperfections. These can include scrapes that are very tiny and hard to see, some whitening on the edges, or possibly warping. There should still be no majorflaws on the card.
A card becomes moderately played when it has some kind of serious damage or marking or a lot of small damage. Think things like a lot of corner and border wear, scrapes along the art, or small creases.
Heavily played becomes the condition once there’s a severe amount of wear and the damage is starting to impact a bigger area of the card than what would be considered moderately played. Heavily played also includes water or liquid damage if less than 1/3 of the cards surface area is impacted. Any more is considered damaged.
Finally we have damaged, which encompasses everything worse than heavily played. This includes tears, bends that make cards unplayable, and if a significant portion is destroyed by water damage. Cards signed by somebody other than the designer or artist are also considered damaged while they won’t be if that signature was from one of those two people.
Foil | Illustration by Donato Giancola
Foils are, as you may have expected, much more expensive and desirable versions of normal cards. Any card that can appear in a draft pack has a chance of being foil. But foils aren’t always guaranteed, nor are they guaranteed to be rare, which makes getting a foil version of a rare and highly demanded card pretty difficult.
Rare foils that are used in Constructed, especially in full playsets, are often priced around 50% to 100% the price of the card without foiling. This is mostly driven by the rarity.
Alternate Art Cards: Are they Worth More?
Across the various sets and blocks released in recent years there’s been a push from WotC called “Project Booster Fun,” where they started including new alternate versions of cards in everyday packs. These including things like showcase cards, extended art cards, borderless art cards, and more FNM promo cards.
These cards are rarer than their normal versions and are much more expensive on the secondary markets because of this and their more art-centered design.
Where to Sell Your Cards
You have a few options if you’re looking to sell Magic singles. You might be able to sell to a local game store near you in exchange for store credit or cash. You can typically expect around 70% market value in cash for the cards and 10% to 15% more for store credit. If you don’t have an LGS or they don’t want to buy your cards, you can also sell them directly to sites like Star City Games or Card Kingdom.
If that doesn’t sound too hot and you’d rather sell directly to buyers, you can list the cards on online markets like TCGPlayer, eBay, or the ChannelFireball marketplace. Just set up an account, verify some info, and start selling!
How to Protect Your Cards
Teferi’s Protection | Illustration by Chase Stone
Protecting your cards is the most important thing when it comes to evaluating and preserving your cards for sale. This can be done a number of ways, but the most important is to keep them sleeved or even double sleeved.
Sleeving protects a card’s edges from wear, its faces from scuffing during play or handling, and protects it from any liquid or dust that could damage it. Double sleeving might sound silly at first, but double-sleeved cards always come out safe while a single-sleeved card might still suffer when you look at the results between two cards that were put to the test.
A strong deck box or binder storage is also necessary to transport your cards. A stack of sleeved cards is no match for being dropped or smushed around in a backpack. A strong plastic or felt deck box can help protect them from bludgeoning or physical damage when you’re traveling with them. A trade binder is also excellent for transporting single cards that may be needed at short notice during trade sessions.
Finally a hard plastic top loader that can hold a sleeved or even double-sleeved card is optimal when mailing cards or protecting cards of incredible value. A hard case top loader provides a solid barrier to damage that could happen during the shipping process and gives your buyer some peace of mind ordering from you or your store.
Will My Cards Increase in Value? Are They a Good Investment?
This depends entirely on what cards you have, if they’re on the reserved list, and many more factors. Investing in cards requires speculation and you should have some kind of indicator or theory as to why a card will grow in value ahead of time.
But if you just have some cards that are worth something and wonder if you should sell or hold, here are a few good ways to determine that.
The Reserved List
The reserved list is a list of cards by WotC that will never be reprinted in any form. This gives players a reason to be confident when buying older and lets you know what cards won’t lose half of their value being reprinted as a rare in a Core set. If you own a card on this list it’s best to just hold until you need to sell it since it likely won’t ever see a price decrease.
Possible Future Bans
This is more speculation that certainty, but a card is obviously at risk of being banned if it just won its third GP or organized tournament in a row. Cards that dominate formats in an unhealthy way are prime targets for the banned and restricted list. If you think a card you have is one of those (looking at you Epiphany), you may want to sell it before the hammer comes down.
Special Rarity and Other Factors
There are cards that had special versions printed that won’t be available in that form again, like a showcase or Strixhaven Mystical Archive. Their value comes from their special appearance and you basically have a stamp of approval that it’s a decent hold since it won’t be something that comes around in the same form again.
The Most Valuable MTG Cards
There are some incredibly valuable and rare cards that have insane prices. Things like judge promo Force of Wills, FNM Brainstorm, etc. But there are lots of cards that aren’t crazy foils or alternative versions that still have pretty high price points.
Here are just a few:
- Imperial Seal
- Copy Artifact
- Survival of the Fittest
- Grim Monolith
- Candelabra of Tawnos
- Transmute Artifact
- Power Artifact
- Juzám Djinn
- Drop of Honey
End Hostilities | Illustration by Jason Rainville
There you have it! Everything you need to know to understand Magic card value and conditions. This is a great primer to helping you get started evaluating your collections and possible future trades. I hope this has helped you figure out whatever question you came searching for answers for.
Let me know anything I might’ve missed down in the comments below or over on our Draftsim Discord!
That’s all from me. Until next time, stay safe and stay healthy!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: