Daniel Chang Shares The Magic, Insights on collecting Magic: The Gathering cards

Daniel Chang of Seattle bought his first pack of trading cards in 1989. He was fascinated with the pieces of printed cardboard that his mother felt were worthless and, shortly after purchasing that first pack, David became hooked, finding the gathering of cards to be somewhat magical. It is perhaps for that reason he is so fascinated with Magic: The Gathering and today stands as one of the foremost authorities on these gaming cards.

Magical History

Magic: The Gathering was the brainchild of a 28-year old mathematics professor named Richard Garfield who started designing the card game in the 1980s while attending the University of Pennsylvania. In 1993, while pitching another game called RoboRally, Garfield met Peter Adkison of Wizards of the Coast, a publishing company (now owned by Hasbro) that specializes in science fiction and fantasy games. Adkison was fascinated with RoboRally and offered to publish the game. Soon thereafter, Garfield told him about Magic: The Gathering, which equally grabbed Adkison's interest.

Daniel Chang is one of the world's foremost authorities on collecting Magic: The Gathering cards.

First produced exclusively in English, the cards are now printed in French, Chinese, Japanese, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian, and are widely considered to be one of the most popular collectible card games ever produced. It is estimated that well over 25 million people collect, buy, sell and trade Magic: The Gathering cards.

A relatively simple game that consists of five colors – green, red, blue, black and white, Magic: The Gathering allows each player 60 cards that highlight various creatures, spells, places and items. Using 20 "life points", each player's goal is to compile a collection of cards that can be used to outwit and outplay their opponents. While the basic concept of the game is rather simple, the nuances and strategies of Magic: The Gathering can be extremely complicated.

Each game is a war between wizards known as Planeswalkers or Duelists who conjure up incantations, enlist the help of fantasy creatures, and use various items to defeat their foes. Players fight one another by using mana to cast magical spells. The numerous spells available can have a one-time effect, remain in effect for the entire game, or summon up a powerful creature to fight on the player's behalf. The more powerful a spell is, the more mana it costs. Some spells are so powerful they can actually override the game's rules. When it comes to Magic: The Gathering, the cards themselves are the most powerful of resources. So powerful in fact that the rules state that: "if a card's text conflicts with the rules, the card has priority."

Black Lotus beta
This GEM MINT 10 Black Lotus is the Holy Grail for Magic: The Gathering collectors.

For the most part, Magic: The Gathering cards are available as a core set that consists of 359 reissued cards that highlight a mix of old artwork coupled with new designs. They are also available in expansion sets, in which only newly-designed cards are offered. In the terminology of Magic: The Gathering, cards are collected in "blocks" which include three theme-related expansion sets released over any one year period.

While the cards themselves have become highly sought-after collectibles with card enthusiasts, they also hold great value for those who are serious game players. This brings an interesting twist into the collecting of these cards. Unlike other cards that are valued for their artwork, popularity, condition and rarity, Magic: The Gathering cards also hold value for their utility in game play.

When it comes to collecting Magic: The Gathering cards, collectors divide their desirables into three groups: rare, uncommon and common. Today, most Magic: The Gathering cards are offered in "booster packs" or "tournament decks." A typical 15-card booster pack offers one rare, three uncommons, and 11 commons. A tournament deck, on the other hand, contains three rares, 10 uncommons, 32 commons, and 30 basic land cards.

Black Lotus alpha
A one-of-a-kind Christopher Rush signed Black Lotus in GEM MINT 10.

In the magical world of Magic: The Gathering, card colors are also hugely important. Multi-color cards were first offered in a Legends set, which used a gold background. There are also two-color "hybrid" cards that were introduced in a set marketed as the Ravnica set. The border of the Ravnica cards are a duel-color offering that sport a vertical merge between colors that run down the middle of the cards.

From the beginning, Magic: The Gathering cards were noticed for their artwork. Wizards of the Coast had employed both well-known science fiction and fantasy artists as well as neophyte artists to provide the art. At the outset of production, the artwork that was created for these cards was simply born out of the creative minds of the artists themselves. That changed a few years into the production when the company decided to impose various guidelines so that there would be a uniformity with the design and development of the cards. A few of the early sets included alternate art designs for cards. That stopped when the company felt it caused confusion when trying to identify a card during game play. Thus, alternate art is now used very sparingly and usually just for promotional offerings. From 1995 on, all artwork that has been created for Magic: The Gathering cards has become the property of Wizards of the Coast. The company does, however, allow an artist who has created a card to sell both the original and printed reproductions. If a certain card has a high play value, reprinting will often increase the desire for the original. However, in some cases, the reprinting has been known to decrease the original's value. Taking that into consideration, Wizards of the Coast established an official reprint policy in 1995 that guaranteed collectors the value of many old cards by deeming certain cards "unavailable" for reprinting purposes.

A Big Change

The Eighth Edition Core Set of Magic: The Gathering was offered in 2003 and included the biggest changes since its creation. In '03, a new layout was designed to allow more text and bigger art. This offering also saw the reduction of the wide, colored borders that had been a part of the cards up to that time. The new design also used a new font style and black type instead of white, believing the text would be easier to read.

The Holy Grails

The most desired cards amongst collectors of Magic: The Gathering cards are the Black Lotus and the so-called "Power Nine' – nine powerful cards known as Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Timetwister, Mox Jet, Mox Sapphire, Mox Ruby, Mox Emerald, and Mox Pearl. In 1993, two sets, known as Alpha and Beta were released. Alpha, a 292-card set is the most rare of all Magic: The Gathering cards. Produced in a very limited edition there were only approximately 1.1 million cards ever made. Alpha cards are best defined by their black borders. The Beta set, consisting of 299-cards, includes the same cards as the Alpha set but offers five additional cards. The Beta set was limited to a production run of just 4,000,000 cards.

Getting Started

Trying to cover all of the nuances of production, playing strategies and collecting of Magic: The Gathering cards could literally take up an entire book. If you are intrigued by these fanciful cards and are thinking about starting a collection, experts suggest that you spend a lot of time educating yourself before spending any cash. Among those experts is Daniel Chang who, over the years, has owned and sold some of the most desirable Magic: The Gathering cards ever produced. SMR recently sat down with Chang to get a better understanding of these cards.

Underground Sea Juzam Djinn
Magic: The Gathering cards have always been known for their artwork which has been created by well-known science fiction and fantasy artists as well as newcomers.

SMR: Let's start by asking you to tell us about yourself.

Daniel Chang: I was born in Taipei, Taiwan, but came to the USA when I was four years old. I have lived in Seattle since arriving from Taipei, except for three years when I lived in Orange County, California. I am 26, single, and have two Bichon Frises – Boo Boo and Chloe. I went to college at the University of Washington and received my BS in Mechanical Engineering in 2004. Currently, I work as an account executive with a transportation company. Prior to my current position, I worked in the same capacity with FedEx. When I was just 19, I started a business called Teddy's Ballgame with a business partner and, to this day, I still actively grade and collect Magic: The Gathering cards. Along with card collecting, I am also interested in tennis, badminton, golf, bowling, driving fast cars, traveling, poker, and spending time with my family and friends. I also have a younger sister, Michelle, who is 24 and doesn't collect anything.

SMR: Tell us about your collecting background – when you began – what you collect.

DC: The funny part of my collecting is that my Mom never thought my pieces of cardboard would ever be worth anything. But I opened my first pack in 1989 – a 1989 Donruss Baseball pack. At the time, Ken Griffey Jr. was the man. Soon after my introduction to cards, I became very interested in the condition of cards and their importance. I would spend my money buying cards, and collecting the big rookies, like Frank Thomas, Jose Canseco, and other stars of the era. I didn't really get serious about collecting cards until I started buying and trading graded cards. When that happened, my entire world changed. I can honestly say, I have graded and sold some of the rarest cards known to exist. During college, I would travel all of the country buying and selling cards. Through my company, I acted as a consignment broker. We focused on all sports, vintage, and even some non-sports cards using eBay, which has played a major role in card sales, and changed the nature of collecting. Of course, higher end auction houses like Mastro Auctions, Lelands and SCP Auctions have also played a major role in today's card market.

SMR: What spurred your interest in Magic: The Gathering cards?

DC: Back when I was in high school, I was watching my friends play the game, this was around 1994, and I was immediately intrigued by the whole idea of the game. I never played much, maybe once or twice, but mostly observed. Since I was a math and numbers guy, I was interested in the combinations and strategy of the game. I started to buy the Alpha and Beta cards for what I thought were very high prices. For example, I once bought a Black Lotus for $100 bucks – but today, ungraded, that card could sell for over $1,000. As time went by, I didn't collect much until I started grading in 1999. Back then, there were no graded cards or at least very few of them. I believe I was the first to start grading Magic: The Gathering cards. I started grading them in batches and collecting them was fun so I set out to collect a set of Alpha and Beta cards. I also started selling them to collectors, and saw some good premiums on them. Then I got some major buyers interested, and then the market got crazy real fast. I started selling and trading on eBay and it got insane. Pretty soon, it was an international thing. Graded Magic: The Gathering cards started to get collectors more serious and then the creation of PSA's Set Registry sparked even more interest.

Black Lotus Time Walk Timetwister Mox Jet Mox Sapphire Mox Ruby Mox Emerald
Seven of the nine cards that make up the "Power Nine" are Black Lotus, Time Walk, Timetwister, Mox Jet, Mox Sapphire, Mox Ruby and Mox Emerald (Ancestral Recall and Mox Pearl not shown).

SMR: Why are some Magic: The Gathering cards more desired and rare than others?

DC: Because of the cut of the cards. There are many that are very hard to find centered. In the Alpha set, I sold some very rare cards – PSA 10s that are very expensive. For example, the Birds of Paradise Alpha card is extremely rare to find centered. It was one of the most played cards and the only PSA 10 I ever sold was for $2,000. That was for a card that, ungraded, is maybe worth about $100. There are others too, like the PSA 10 Alpha Black Lotus which sold for $15,000 and a PSA 10 Beta Black Lotus that sold for $11,000. There is one card, I currently own that is a PSA GEM MINT 10 Alpha Black Lotus signed by the artist, Christopher Rush. It is the only one in the world. This card is by far be the most valuable Magic: The Gathering card since there is only one, and so few have ever been signed. The fact that it has also been authenticated by PSA/DNA makes this card even more valuable. There are also artist's proof uncut sheets that are available. These are extremely limited. These cards are also counterfeited a lot, so watch out.

SMR: Do you have any favorite cards in the set?

DC: I LOVE ALL OF THEM! I love the artwork. That is the main reason I collect them. My favorite card of all-time is the Black Lotus. It is beautiful, the most powerful, and the most popular. It is the equivalent of the 1986 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie or the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle. When it comes to Magic: The Gathering, it's the card to have. I also like the Icy Manipulator card. It's an unbelievable card. It is so powerful within the game and the way it looks on either an Alpha or Beta card is simply gorgeous. As for the commons of the sets, I would say I like the Dark Ritual. I like the fact that it is what is known as a mana booster – its use in the game can be very handy, and I love the artwork!

SMR: What are the biggest challenges in collecting these cards?

DC: There are many challenges. One is simply finding certain cards. Other issues are counterfeiting and alteration. PSA has done a great job in identifying the authentic cards. That is why collecting graded cards is so important. Grading is actually vital with these cards because of the counterfeiting, altering and reprints. Another challenge is determining a true price for the cards. You have to really know what you are doing. With Magic: The Gathering, you will find ungraded cards that are completely destroyed going for the same price as PSA GEM MINT 10s. Why? It's all about the card. The usefulness. Remember, besides being collectibles this is a card game that can be very competitive. Now, don't get me wrong, top graded cards are not being played for the most part in this day and age but, back in the 1990s, they were played regardless of their condition. One of the biggest challenges is also being able to identify a MINT card from a GEM MINT card. I think collectors, assume a card is MINT when they get it out of a pack. The problem is that the packs are so very scarce now. They range in price from $200 to $400 and starters can go for $1,000. For those who want to start collecting these cards, you really need to learn everything you can about grading and what the experts look for. But remember, if you want to get into these cards you need to be aware that finding many of these cards is very hard to do.

SMR: What about original artwork?

DC: It is out there and you can find some on eBay or directly from the artists. There have also been sketches for sale in the past. You can find them at Gen Con or other large collectors conventions and shows. The best way is to contact the artists or Wizards of the Coast directly for inquiries. As you can imagine, the collecting of art has been very limited due to the scarcity of these pieces.

Shivan Dragon Chaos Orb Birds of Paradise
Due to centering flaws, cards such as Birds of Paradise, Chaos Orb and Shivan Dragon in the Alpha set are near impossible to find in MINT let alone GEM MINT condition

SMR: What advice would you give to someone who would like to start a collection, of Magic: The Gathering cards?

DC: I would recommend buying cards based on your budget and focus on just one or two sets to start. If you start trying to collect every set, you will quickly find that you won't have the funds or appreciation of the cards as time goes by. Another recommendation would be to do research on graded cards and determine if that is the way you want to go. I think if a collector is really serious, and sees not only the value but the investment potential of graded cards, then the answer is immediate. Obviously, I'm going to say that grading is the only way to go, but from my experience it's better to let the collector make his or her own decision on that. I would also tell a starting collector to build a good network of friends who collect seriously, and then develop a portfolio. It's going to be very difficult to find the cards you want without knowing who has them. Lastly, I would suggest you go to the PSA website (www.psacard.com) and subscribe to the Pop Report, which details a card's known population, and the SMR. And no, PSA has not put me up to saying this, but it's important to know how many of an item are known to exist, and what the current market value of items are. Sports Market Report is a good starting point and the Pop Report is a very good supplement for the rarity. In addition, I would bookmark PSA's site for grading tips, news and trends. It's also great to check out the site regularly because you never know when you may find other areas of collecting that may interest you.

SMR: What do you see as the future of these cards?

DC: Good question. It's hard to determine the market trend for these cards. What I can say is that since the time I started grading Magic: The Gathering cards they have exploded. I think collectors are starting to find that there is a wide variety of cards to collect that can be done in just about any budget range. If you can't afford a PSA GEM MINT 10 Alpha Black Lotus, don't worry about it. There are none for sale anyway. But there are many others that collectors can own. Internationally, this is an arena in which I believe PSA will have a major impact. Magic: The Gathering is one of the few internationally recognized games. If PSA ever introduces grading into the international market, it would spark grading for other countries and other areas of sports and non-sports cards. It is a hugely untapped market. In terms of the high-end Magic: The Gathering cards, I think you will see it becoming more and more difficult to acquire cards in high-grade material – especially the more premium limited cards. Over time, these graded cards should increase in value steadily. Here's a good example: the PSA 9 Beta Mox Jet sold in 2001 for $150 and now sells for between $750 and $1,000. From an artwork standpoint alone, they are a great investment. Many of the artists who have created these cards have already established other works and, as collectors know, with art the work tends to become more valuable as time goes by and after an artist passes away. The cards are even more rare and valuable if they are signed.

SMR: What else of interest can you share with our readers about Magic: The Gathering cards?

DC: Magic: The Gathering is a game, it's art, it's a hobby, and it's a way of life. Collectors range from professionals to children. It is the game that started the Pokemon trend and many other games. Magic: The Gathering truly pioneered the collectible card game market. It is destined to become a staple of the billion dollar collecting industry. I believe the day will come, in the not too distant future, that Magic: The Gathering cards will rank right up there with Transformers, GI Joes and Barbies as collectible royalty.

A Little More Magic From The Man

Knowing that the vast majority of our readers are sportscards collectors who may be considering venturing into the world of non-sports cards, experts such as Daniel Chang are invaluable resources in helping collectors make the crossover. If you are considering Magic: The Gathering the following information provided by Chang will be of tremendous value to you as you begin your collection.

PLAYED VERSUS NON-PLAYED – Remember, Magic: The Gathering is first and foremost a game. The earliest buyers of these cards bought them not to collect, but to play the game. They never realized that these cards would have significant future value. It is for that reason that finding Alpha and Beta cards in NM/MINT, MINT or GEM MINT is nearly impossible.

SCARCE BOOSTER PACKS/BOXES and STARTER DECKS/BOXES – Rarely in the world of modern non-sports collecting have unopened packs, boxes or cases been so valuable as they are with Magic: The Gathering. If you purchased a pack of Alpha cards back in 1993, you would have paid $2.75. Purchase one today (if you can find one) and you'll shell out nearly $400! The scarcity of booster packs/boxes (36 packs in each box), and starter decks (12 decks per box) make finding singles even more challenging. With collectors scrambling to find unopened material, the amount of cards in the marketplace is very limited. Thus, exceptional examples demand premiums.

COMMON, UNCOMMON and RARE – To make things even more interesting, each booster pack contains one rare, three uncommons and 11 commons. Starter decks contain two rares, eight uncommons and 50 commons. Doing the math will point out that the booster packs are more valuable since the ratio to price and rares is higher. Remember that the print run for the entire Alpha set was only 1.1 million cards so you're talking about only 1,100 rares ever produced. The Beta set saw 4,500 rares produced for each card. This type of rarity can be best correlated to the pack odds of the Topps Finest Refractor or Atomic Refractor of today.

COLOR POPULARITY VERSUS CARD USEFULNESS – Magic: The Gathering cards have a range of usefulness for each card. Each card has its level of popularity, based on color or usefulness. For example, the most renowned card of the line is the legendary Black Lotus. This card gives you an instant mana (magic) boost of 3, of any color of your choice. This can be played anytime, and the casting cost to use this artifact card is zero. For players, this card is the Holy Grail. For collectors, it is the most difficult to find in MINT condition, and demands premiums beyond its book value of $1,500 in MINT ungraded condition. There are rares of this card that range from $15 to over $1,500.

CONDITION SENSITIVE CARDS – Just like any prized set, Alpha and Beta, condition sensitivity is notorious. Printed by a company in Italy called Carta Mundi, these cards are very fragile due to their black borders. You can compare this to the 1971 Topps Baseball or the 1986 Fleer Basketball sets. The chipping is a huge issue in grading. When it comes to the corners, these cards have a natural manufacturer "flip" on all four corners. The degree of "flip" lowers the grade tremendously. Finding cards with little or no "flip" adds even more value to the cards. Centering is one of the most difficult aspects of grading. Many Magic: The Gathering cards were printed with the "Off-Centered" qualifier. Even the most beautiful of these cards are limited to grade PSA 8 or PSA 9 because of the centering flaws in the set. Thus, making the value of key cards such as the Birds of Paradise, Forcefield, Mox Jet, Chaos Orb, Illusionary Mask, Shivan Dragon and many others in the Alpha set near impossible to find in MINT, let alone GEM MINT condition.

THE POWER NINE – There are nine Magic: The Gathering cards that are the most powerful and desirable. They are the Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Timetwister, Mox Jet, Mox Sapphire, Mox Ruby, Mox Emerald, and Mox Pearl. These cards are the most valuable cards in the game. These cards are so scarce and popular that, even in played condition, these cards sell for full book value.

PSA SET REGISTRY – I remember when there was no PSA Set Registry. I also remember when I sold cards to the first Set Registry collectors. Things have really changed since then. Today, there are over seven different Magic: The Gathering sets registered with over 20 or more set registrants for each set. The popularity has lead to an explosion of a new market. New pricing has come into play for graded Magic: The Gathering cards and sets. The popularity of Alpha and Beta has sparked submissions to an all-time high. And PSA, the grading company of choice, has been a major factor in seeing these cards become some of the most sought-after and valued non-sportscards in the world.