Nearing three decades of shaping the gaming landscape, Magic: The Gathering stands apart from its many imitators because it is more than a game.
After years of constant evolution and vociferous growth, Magic has become a lifestyle for generations of players. A major esport, before we even had the word for that kind of professional competition. A true global community crossing geographic and demographic barriers. And as it has become a pop culture touchstone, the most historic and scarce cards in its thousands-strong library have become luxury collector goods.
As such, the value of these cards is tied to an inalienable, irreproducible cultural significance rather than the relatively mercurial fortunes of a specific company. You can rest assured that there will never be another Michael Jordan, so there will never be another Michael Jordan rookie card to tarnish the value of yours. Never another Superman to debut in another Action Comics #1. And because no other game will ever fill Magic’s place as a living foundation of gaming culture, there will never be another Black Lotus.
MAGIC’S ULTIMATE STATUS SYMBOL
That a card with such a general, abstract name could become a household name speaks to the scale of the self-sustaining Magic phenomenon. A foil 1st edition Charizard (sold for $369,000 in December) is trading on the power of the Pokemon brand, a nugget of nostalgia which makes easy headlines because it naturally appeals to millions who grew up with a Gameboy.
But a mint Alpha edition Black Lotus (sold for $511,100 in January) has become famous for its value and prestige alone. Many who recognize the name have no idea what the card does in play, or quite why it is Magic’s great prize.
There are reasons, of course — in the rare tournaments where Black Lotus is legal, it is an unmatched trump card, allowing a player to “skip ahead” to cast their most powerful spells on the first turn of a match. It is also quite scarce, with 22,800 copies created across the first few print runs of the game before it was removed for balance reasons in 1994. But it is far from being the most scarce or unique card, or even the most essential staple for modern competition.
Mostly, Black Lotus is valuable because it is synonymous with value. While its notoriety and mystique have by now outgrown the game it came from, the stability and longevity of Magic is what allowed it to reach this status. And it is not the only treasure among Magic’s oldest and most precious relics.
In fact, it’s part one of a very famous set!
THE POWER NINE
Like any subculture, the Magic player base has developed its own charming vernacular over the years. “The Power Nine” is one such bit of jargon, and that vague status alone goes a long way to setting apart a group of already desirable cards as something eternal and legendary. Players will refer to their “pieces of Power,” distinguish between Powered and Un-Powered decks, and hold up the standards of “Power” as a yardstick to all current and future Magic cards.
When they were first put on a pedestal, the pieces of Power were simply nine of the most sought after and essential rare cards of Magic’s first set. But as Wizards discontinued the more game-breaking cards from future print runs and gradually reduced the strength of new cards, the status of that original, arbitrary group began to acquire a historic weight — they became THE Power Nine, embedded in the game’s earliest, pioneering era. The Power Nine is a Hall of Fame for Magic cards, but one with a closed membership — decided years ago and etched in stone for generations of young players to learn of, legends seldom seen but much renowned.
The Black Lotus is first among them, of course. But to some 40 million Magic players, the others are just a half-step lower in status. And since they are equally scarce in number, the value of the other pieces can only grow to match this stature as cashed-up collectors look further into the Lotus’s fruitful origins.
Piece two of nine is Ancestral Recall. Where Black Lotus offers players a surge of mana — the game’s main currency — A-Call offers an injection of new cards to play for an absurd bargain price. It is the yin to the Lotus’s yang, and has come to be even more feared by players.
Having more cards than your opponent is more than half the battle in Magic, and tournament players will often concede on the spot if they fail to prevent an opposing A-Call. In modern printings of the game, the equivalent “draw three” spell costs a whopping 500% more mana than this OG. It may not have the outside star power of the Lotus, but Ancestral puts the Power in “Power Nine” just as much.
Piece three is Time Walk, another simple card made legendary by its jaw dropping price and iconic look. If you’ve ever played Monopoly, it’s probably not hard to sell that “take an extra turn” is a very powerful ability to print on a card. But to make that ability available for just two mana — a tiny fraction of what might be available to a player at the time — ensures that Time Walk can steal a match in completely unfair ways.
Like A-Call, the next most powerful version of this effect to be printed costs more than double the mana Time Walk does. The phrase “I’ll take a Walk” will forever mean something different to Magic fans, and even this evocative Danse Macabre imagery has become part of the game’s cultural fabric.
Pieces four through eight are a matched set, one for each of Magic’s colors of mana in a pattern that would be repeated thousands of times over the game’s history. But no such cycle of cards can match the Moxen for raw universal potential; they abuse the same mana mechanics as Black Lotus and were cut from the game’s core card set for the same balance reasons it was.
The most expensive tournament deck of all time was played by Magic personality Stephen Menendian at a unique throwback event using 1993 rules – using Mox Sapphires to cast literally millions of dollars in other Power Nine cards.
The individual Moxen — Jet, Pearl, Ruby, Emerald and Sapphire — helped define the “mana rock” as part of Magic’s rich and subtle fantasy canon, inspiring imitators up to the present day. But none can hold a candle to these crown jewels.
The final piece of power is Timetwister. By far the most complex card to make the grade, it is essentially a reset button for the current match, turning back time to avoid a bad start or re-live a great one. While a marvel in its day and game-winning even in the present, Timetwister will always be the little brother when assessing the Power Nine as a group. Critics who argue for a “new Power Nine” make it their target for replacement, claiming it no longer merits such revered company.
But while penning their essays on how ‘Twister might be merely among the top 50 Magic treasures, such pundits have missed the point: twenty-five years of special treatment as a piece of Power have already elevated Timetwister above technically more match-winning cards. Even if Magic were to somehow devalue the in-game power of these cards, their significance and worth has long since been a matter of legend rather than performance.
With the Nine banned from all significant tournaments for decades, having a stable and recognized pantheon of such cards is far more valuable than trying to elect new pieces of Power by committee. The community understands this so implicitly — and the current idea of the Power Nine is so fixed — that it is hard to imagine such proposals ever gaining serious traction.
MAGIC’S PRIME REAL ESTATE (HONORABLE MENTIONS)
That being said, there is a tiny group of honorable mentions that would, by their equivalent market value and scarcity, make up the shortlist for any such expanded Power set. All four are land cards — the building blocks of Magic, which produce the resources to use every other card in the game. Except for these very early lands, which offer overwhelmingly strong special abilities on par with the Power Nine at ZERO cost!
Library of Alexandria simply allows a player to draw an extra card every turn, so long as they already have a full seven cards in hand. Since seven is the number of cards you start with, it’s easy to draw an Ancestral Recall worth of cards or more very quickly and run away with a game.
Bazaar of Baghdad is like Library’s ersatz twin, allowing a player to draw two cards in any situation — but then forcing them to discard three. While this sounds like a drawback, many of Magic’s most potent cards work best after being discarded, so Bazaar goes from good to extraordinary in combination with them.
The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale is an oppressive weapon against any and all creature cards, forcing a heavy tax on the player controlling them lest they be destroyed. Since the vast majority of decks rely on creatures in some way, Tabernacle’s ability to punish these cards essentially for free makes it uniquely feared.
The Tabernacle is also unique among the cards on this list in that it was intended for a much larger print run, with a marked rarity of “uncommon” on the official set list as opposed to “rare.” But an error in packaging boosters of the Legends set meant that the uncommon cards were unevenly distributed, sharply limiting the supply of Tabernacles to the public.
Mishra’s Workshop is an absurdly powerful mana source on par with Black Lotus, albeit only for artifact cards. But as a land that can be reused every single turn, it more than earns its reputation as one of the most dominant cards that can still be played without limitation in an official tournament.
Each of these lands was printed in Magic’s freshman year — Library and Bazaar in the very first expansion set Arabian Nights, Workshop in the next set, Antiquities, and Tabernacle in the third release, Legends. None of them have ever been reprinted, leading to price tags in the thousands even without them garnering attention from collectors outside Magic — so far.
The fact that these ultra-powerful and treasured lands are still worth less than Timetwister demonstrates the value commanded by the Power Nine label alone. But investors both in and out of Magic are waking up to the massive potential of these cards in a bullish collectibles market — and of many other cards from this mid-90’s era that have never been reprinted since.
There have been several massive rounds of buyouts in recent years targeting cards from this “Reserved List” — a list of cards that the game’s publisher made a legally binding promise to never reprint. The guarantee of uniqueness and additional mystique of the list has proven to be all it takes to drive otherwise nondescript cards to significant prices — and while some of that movement might prove inflated, the accompanying growth in the Power Nine has stuck with each such surge.
For more information on the Reserved List and a more thorough list of blue-chip Magic investment targets, you can continue your research here. But if you’re ready to commit to the biggest game in town, you need look no further — the Power Nine will always be the pinnacle of Magic prestige.
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.