Card Art Variants Making Magic Crazy Expensive

You’ve just started playing Magic, or returned after a long hiatus, and all you hear are confusing terms such as Showcase, Borderless, and Etched Foil cards. How did a card game meant for kitchen-top play evolve into a cash cow, making an already expensive game even more expensive? Driven by the need for higher profits, there’s been a wild increase in art and foil variants available for collectors in the span of just 18 months.

With more variants available, this eggs players and collectors to spend more on booster packs, which all contained randomised cards. For the upcoming Modern Horizons 2 set, they’ve even raised the retail price of a booster box, from US$300 for a regular Draft box, to US$420 for a Collector box.

The Collector Box craze and its art variant cards begun less than two years ago, at the launch of Magic’s newest set Throne of Eldraine (Oct 2019). Wizards of the Coast introduced the concept of premium Collector Booster Boxes. A Collector box had only 12 packs but every single card was in foil, and it also included exclusive variants not found in regular Draft Booster Boxes.

Evolution From Extended Art to Borderless Art Variant

Throne of Eldraine brought forth the concept of borderless Magic cards. Wizards had already experimented with Extended Art and Full-Art Land cards in sets such as Ultimate Masters (2018), but these always came with some kind of border (black or otherwise).

With Eldraine’s Borderless cards, it was the first step to revolutionising Magic card design. Rather than merely stretch the art over the black borders like they did in the Ultimate Masters, these new Borderless cards feature completely new art, zero black borders, and with minimal framing (below right)

It didn’t stop there, as there were also special Showcase frames for several of the Adventure cards found only in Eldraine. Adventure was a completely new mechanic and Wizards wanted to glam up their appearance with new art surrounded by a frame reminiscent of fairy tales (ala Jack in the Beanstalk etc). There was substantial interest to collect those Showcase cards (below right) right after the set’s release, but two years later they’ve only shown a slight premium in value over the regular cards (below left).

Wizards Introduces More Alternate and Showcase Art

In hindsight, we now see that Eldraine was just the start of Wizards’ ramping up of alternate-art and variants. In the entire year of 2020, in the midst of a horrible Covid-19 rampage, Wizards went on to release a slew of card variants for players and collectors to sink more money into the game.

Virtually every new set after Eldraine offered a Showcase art variant, in addition to Borderless and Extended Art cards. It became clear these new variants (that are also available in foil versions) were here to stay. Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths even included crossover art with the Godzilla franchise (below left), in the hope that their fans would put some money into MTG and perhaps start playing the game too.

A New Foil Variant Takes Things Further

Even as players and fans were getting overwhelmed with the sheer number of different variants and the high price of Collector Boxes, the money train wasn’t going to slow down just yet. In the standalone set Commander Legends, released in November 2020, Wizards introduced a different kind of foiling for their cards – dubbed the Etched Foil. These were essentially a more detailed and stylised form of foiling, where the art and frame appeared textured and ‘etched,’ despite still being smooth to the touch.

Thankfully these Etched Foils only applied to specially chosen cards from the set, meaning collectors did not have to hunt for Etched Foils of every single card. On the downside, regular foils still existed for those chosen cards, thus adding an additional variant for collectors to mull over.

Different Art for Different Languages

Perhaps feeling they’ve gone as far as they’ve could with art variants in English, for the release of Strixhaven in February 2021, Wizards threw another bone into the dog pound – another new alternate art only available in the Japanese language. If a player wanted to own a specific art for a card, it would have to be in Japanese.

Known as the Mystical Archive, the Showcase series was split into two – 1) Frame and art for the global market, in either English or Japanese language, or 2) Frame and art for the Japanese market, only in Japanese language. It’s a definite tongue twister when you tried to explain to your friends which variant you had pulled from your Strixhaven booster pack.

To be fair, this alternate art tied to a language had been done before, in 2019’s War of the Spark, where Japanese-language Planeswalker cards featured completely new alternate art. Since the Collector Box (which makes it easier to attain these alternate art cards) had not existed back then, it was considerably harder to attain the rarest cards.

What made Strixhaven worse was that they included an Etched Foil variant for these Mystical Archive Showcase cards, which meant there each card had 3 possible art+language combinations (above), and each of those were available in 3 types of foiling (non-foil, Etched Foil, and Foil). Confused yet?

No More New Art, Let’s Use Old Frames

Just like how Wizards saw offering Japanese language alternate art was profitable, they probably came to the same conclusion with Time Spiral and Time Spiral Remastered’s Retro Frame series.

Magic started off in 1993 with a classic frame, filled with vibrant colours and painterly swirls. These were phased out in the early 2000s for a more modern look (wow two Magic puns in a single sentence), but for these two sets they decided to reprint specific cards in the Retro frame – cards that had previously only existed in the modern frame.

The success of Retro frames have come full circle as they are now being offered in a regular standalone set – Modern Horizons 2 in June 2021. However like before only a specific (but expanded) list will have the Retro frame option, and they will come in both Etched Foil and regular foil.

Will players one day see an entire set of cards being offered the Retro frame option? I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if that happened. Wizards know there are plenty of players who have stayed loyal from the early days and even as the type of products increase and prices rise, the demand doesn’t seem to have peaked.

Stop the Presses – We Found A Sketch Variant!

Leave it up to the genius designers to think up of a new art variant – the Sketch. I suppose since art can’t literally extend beyond Borderless, why not offer a raw, unrefined version of the art itself? Surely some fans appreciate that too. Unlike all the other variants that have come before, the Sketch is a completely fresh variant and will appear in Modern Horizons 2. Right now it isn’t clear how many cards in the set will offer the Sketch variant (below right), but I’m betting it will be a selected list of cards, much like the Retro frame.

End Step – An Overview of the Madness

Here we are in June 2021, the current epitome of art variants in Magic: the Gathering. More accurately, is it the peak of Magic commercial exploitation? Thanks to the wonderful Internet, I found a neat table breaking down the different art and foil variants available for grabs in the upcoming Modern Horizons 2 set:

The number of different variants on show are staggering, and even long-time players would be dizzy at the sight. For new players, I can only imagine how much more convulsing this table can look. If you’re learning the game or just getting started, it’s best to just focus on playing, not with fancy Etched Foil or Sketch cards, but with regular ones that now probably many players will be happy to discard for cheap.

Where do you think Magic is headed – is this far from the end in terms of variants and the price of paper Magic? We’d love to hear your thoughts, do contact us at lets@tapandsac.com.

Ted

After playing from Tempest to Urza's Saga block, Ted took a 20 year break from the game before returning to the classic Plane of Dominaria in 2018. His favourite formats are Commander, Draft, and, grudgingly, Standard.