Several members of the community and even Wizards of the Coast (hereinafter, “Wizards”) employees themselves have called out the “Reserve List” as being outdated, too broad and too narrow at the same time, frustrating, bad for the game, threatening the long-term life of Eternal formats, etc. I have been shocked at how one-sided the published commentary has been, and I would like to offer my take on the reserve list.

For the uninitiated, here is a basic description of the reserve list (now called the “reprint policy”), and the list itself.

I think Wizards should NOT abolish or amend the reserve list, and here’s why: the company’s credibility matters. I don’t intend to discuss whether Wizards can change its mind regarding a promise it made to its customers (it certainly can), what matters here is whether it should. What are the consequences of abolishing the reserve list?

A promise should mean something.

When times are good, as they are now for Magic and its producer, Wizards, it is easy to forget the lessons of the past. Come to think of it, it’s also easy to forget the lessons of the past when times are tough. The reserve list was born out of the crisis that was Chronicles. Collectors, dealers, and players (there is overlap here, which is important to note; I, for example, am a collector and a player) had lost confidence in their ability to recoup investments made in Magic cards, due to the printing of cards like Killer Bees and Dakkon Blackblade in Chronicles which had a drastic negative impact on the older versions of these cards. In a crisis like this, people turned to Wizards for guidance, and Wizards used its credibility to assure them this wouldn’t happen again, by creating the reserve list. The reserve list has no value if it changes or vanishes the moment Wizards employees think “it is now in the company’s best interest to abolish or change the reserve list.” A promise to do something so long as you feel like it amounts to no promise at all.

Abolishing the reserve list now will mean that in any future crisis, whether it is a card-market crisis, a power-level/banned-restricted list crisis, a tournament support crisis, or whatever else you can imagine, Wizards won’t have the credibility needed to make a similar announcement or promise. Wizards’ credibility is critical to the health of the game. In a crisis, the existence of the reserve list, unblemished, will be a testament to how serious Wizards takes its promises. When an announcement is made, people will feel secure that it is more than just lip service. I urge Wizards to preserve this credibility by preserving the reserve list.

COUNTERARGUMENTS TO POPULAR ARGUMENTS IN FAVOR OF ABOLISHING THE RESERVE LIST

1) Legacy will die out eventually if the reserve list is not abolished.

The argument goes like this: Legacy grows in popularity every year, hence the demand for key cards increases, yet the supply never increases, due to the reserve list. At some point there are either too few cards, or the cards are too expensive, for the format to be a healthy one. This argument has the most appeal of any in favor of abolishing the reserve list, but I think at the very least, it is premature. Underground Sea is not currently much more expensive, if more expensive at all, than Tarmogoyf, and even decks with 2x Tabernacle are not much more expensive than some Extended decks, or more expensive than the kind of golf clubs you need to compete in a golf tournament. Right now, there are expensive decks and there are less expensive decks, and the format is doing tremendously well, even though less expensive formats exist (in fact, extended receives more support from Wizards in the form of PTQs, and is still less popular than Legacy). I enjoy owning valuable cards, working to put together a deck and/or collection is part of the joy of Legacy, and if I want to open packs and build something, I’ll play Standard or Block Constructed. Basically what I am saying is that the current growth of Legacy is evidence against the “expensive cards kill formats” argument. The cheaper format is not the one that will be embraced the most, and formats with expensive decks like current Legacy are widely embraced.

What is it that makes Legacy so popular? There is no one answer to this question, and no simple explanation will capture the different reasons that different people have for liking the format. However, I can say definitively that some players enjoy playing with older, more expensive, more powerful cards. You know, the kinds of cards Wizards would never reprint today, except as a promo. I know that personally, the second an opponent plays a foil alternate art Tropical Island, I will be having less fun in Legacy. Again, not everyone feels this way, but some people do. Another thing many people like about Legacy is that so many different decks and strategies are viable. This means two things for the Legacy player who is strapped for cash, 1) the most expensive deck is by no means the best deck, and 2) if you invest in an archetype, it will likely stay relevant for a long time. I think the second point is one of Legacy’s great strengths. Merfolk might be the best deck today, not the best tomorrow, and the best again next year, but it will likely always be relevant. Many decks are also flexible enough to adjust to a changing metagame without changing more than say, 10 cards.

As for the game “eventually” dying out because only around 300,000 Underground Seas were ever printed: we’re not anywhere close to that now, and who knows if we’ll ever get there. Even an aggressive estimate would say that we are years away from there not being enough of a card for everyone who wants 4 to get 4, regardless of price (price is discussed above). In the unlikely event this eventually happens, it can be addressed in a number of ways at that time. All of this assumes Magic’s growth will continue, without a plateau or reversal, for years and years. I hope so, but who knows. The take-home point here is that we are a long long way away from card availability negatively impacting Legacy, irrespective of price, so addressing the problem now is premature.

2) The reserve list is too broad, in that it has cards that are worth 50 cents on it, and too narrow, in that cards like Force of Will aren’t reserved.

This popular argument misses the point entirely. What cards should be on the reserve list, and whether the reserve list makes sense in the first place, are essentially arguments that should have been made before the reserve list was announced. The wisdom of making a promise is distinct from the wisdom of keeping a promise. Here is an example: your uncle promises you, a 6 year old boy, a two-scoop ice-cream cone if you get an A on your math test. You achieve this mark, and approach your uncle to receive your prize. He then tells you that he should have promised you something healthy instead of something fattening, he should have asked your mother first, and he should have made the promise for just 1 scoop instead of two, since 1 scoop still would have motivated you. Even if all his reasons are correct, is he being fair to you? No, because he is listing reasons why he shouldn’t make such promises, not reasons why he shouldn’t keep the promises he has made. Wizards is in a similar position regarding the reserve list. There are several very good arguments for not making another reserve list, and indeed, Wizards has never made another reserve list.

The fact that cards are on the reserve list that don’t need to have their value protected, like Carnival of Souls, is not a reason to break a promise. It CERTAINLY isn’t a reason to abolish the entire reserve list, which would amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. These cards don’t need to be reprinted anyway, we can all get a copy for 50 cents. Anyone who paints the reserve list as archaic and outdated may be correct, but they are just attempting to distract you from the real issue. No one really cares whether Carnival of Souls gets reprinted.

3) Recently, Wizards couldn’t put Sliver Queen in the Sliver deck, which sucked.

Again, this is a great argument for not making another reserve list, ever. But it isn’t a serious enough problem to warrant the credibility loss that would result from the proposed solution.

4) Wizards has already changed the reserve list, and has deviated from the reserve list, so collectors should already be on notice that reliance upon the reserve list is foolish.

Wizards has revised the reserved list in the past, and has printed premium versions of reserved cards, which, while not in violation of the reserve list as currently worded (the phrase “non-premium” is now in the policy), it was probably a violation of the reserve list as it was previously worded. Slight changes to the reserve list, or small-run printings of reserved cards are some evidence that Wizards might reprint Dual Lands, but they hardly overshadow the stated reprint policy that can be found on Wizards’ website. In other words, many people still put stock in the reserve list, myself included. Additionally, I am fully in favor of Wizards coming out and acknowledging that previous violations of the reserve list were mistakes. The fact that these mistakes were made, and Wizards’ credibility has suffered slightly (in proportion to the type of deviations we are talking about) as a result, is not a good argument for going 99.9999% further and abolishing the reserve list entirely. Yes, collectors should put slightly less faith in the reserve list than they should have before any deviations or modifications, but I don’t think reliance upon it is wholly unreasonable based on these minor past actions. Wizards should take corrective action in the fact of past deviations (a statement reaffirming the reserve list), rather than deviate further.

5) The current policy allows premium reprints, so Wizards should just do that.

First of all, I don’t think this is in line with the original promise made, though to be fair, I don’t have it in front of me. Second of all, any “sidestepping” of the reserve list is as ill-advised as abolishing the reserve list. There is no promise that Wizards won’t reprint an Underground Ocean that is Tribal Land – Swamp Island Kraken with no non-mana abilities (if subtypes are different, it isn’t a reprint). But the spirit of the promise would be broken. I regard foil reprints in the same way. Many players, like myself, don’t like foils. They have a different feel from regular cards, and I don’t want deficient randomization or even the appearance of a marked deck. Oh, and I also don’t like the way they look. But even if I liked foils, out of deference to the original promise of the reserve list, I wouldn’t advocate foil reprints.

Thank you for listening to the other side of this debate. Before posting in the comments, remember to ask yourself, “Am I making an argument for why the promise of the reserve list was a bad idea in the first place, or am I making an argument for why Wizards should break its promise now?”

P.S. Before I go, and in the spirit of “the health of the game of Magic,” I have to give two quick plugs for people who are close to me and for whom dedication to the game is a labor of love.

– Patrick Chapin’s book “Next Level Magic” goes on sale soon in stunning color edition. Late last year I told Patrick I thought [card]Ad Nauseum[/card] was the best deck in Legacy. He responded that he thought Reanimator was the best deck, but he understood what I meant. Take a look at the recent finals of Grand Prix Madrid when you get chance. When Patrick talks, I listen, and I try to get him to talk as much as I can.

– For those of you in Southern California, my friend Matt Murphy is opening a store on March 12, 2010 in La Habra, across from the In N Out. 2121 E. Lambert Rd., Ste. 305, La Habra, CA. I know he will be supporting Legacy, Standard, and everything else, with plenty of tables to battle on, so come check it out.

-Sperling