Article: The Wild History and Economics of Trading Cards
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Between late middle school and early high school, I obsessively collected Pokémon cards. Not only would I collect them to play the trading card game attached to it, but I would do my best to collect every card in the set, including the secret shiny rare cards. Even after I stopped playing the game, I still keep my cards in shoeboxes, and every so often, I’ll buy a 10 card pack at Target to open one up for nostalgia’s sake. In any case, it’s genuinely surprising to find how much interest and volume there is in the trading card game business.
One of the original landmark trading card economies was definitely the baseball trading card business (Collectable Insurance Services). While baseball cards were being printed since the inception of the professional sport in the 1860s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that people started seeing baseball cards as actually valuable pieces, and demand for baseball cards skyrocketed. To meet that demand, baseball card producers tried to up production. However, this lead to a glut, and many of the cards produced during the 80s and 90s are viewed as worthless. From there on, card producers put controls on production volume to keep the value of the cards from degrading. Today, some of the older baseball cards can be worth thousands, even millions, of dollars (Wealthy Gorilla). At the time of this writing, the most expensive baseball card in the world is the 1909-1911 American Tobacco Company Honus Wagner card. Widely regarded as the “holy grail” of baseball cards, there are only an estimated 25-200 in the entire world. Honus had asked ATC to pull production of his card early on in minting, so only a limited amount was made. The card is estimated to be worth $3 million for mint condition.
In the 90s, we saw a big change in the trading card universe. In 1993, Wizards of the Coast released Magic: the Gathering, the first modern trading card game (Guinness World Records). Rather than collecting cards where their sole utility was the information and art on the card, the cards can be combined into a deck that you can use to compete with another player in a game. Later on, new trading card games came out, including Pokemon, Yu-gi-Oh, and Cardfight Vanguard. One thing that is interesting is how the price of the card also depends on how “good” a card is in the game. For instance, when a new expansion of the trading card game comes out, some cards can be considered more advantageous to have in a player’s deck than others, so demand (and, hence, price) goes up. Nostalgia and limited printing are also big drivers for older cards. For instance, an extremely famous Magic: the Gathering card, Black Lotus, sold on auction in 2021 for over $500,000 autographed, and an unsigned copy sold in 2019 for $166,000 (Polygon, Polygon). Black Lotus was part of the first set ever released and hence had a limited printing.
In 2020, a series of factors, including nostalgia, the pandemic, and online influencers, set off a bubble in the Pokemon trading card game economy (The Gamer). Cards began to balloon between 100% to 300% on a per-year basis, attracting speculators to further buy up cards. For instance, the First Edition Charizard, considered one of the most highly sought-after Pokemon cards, sold on auction for over $36,000 only to be sold in 2021 for $350,000. The rush for Pokemon cards got to a point of physical violence, where a 35-year-old man produced a gun after 4 men aged between 23 and 35 tried to assault him in a Target parking lot over Pokemon cards (The Guardian). In a response to this, Target stopped selling Pokemon, Baseball, Football, and Basketball cards in stores until demand began to level out.
Trading cards have been around for over a century, but it wasn’t until the 80s that we started to see the that people saw the speculative and value of trading cards. Trading cards have different meanings to different people. They can be sources of hobbies, nostalgia, or even investment. It will be interesting to see the trading card space evolve as time goes on.
Rose Smith is the blog editor of Twenty-two Twenty-eight. When she isn’t writing about the world around her, she is often found listening to music, watching movies, and going on walks with her dogs.