Michael is a partner at a New York law firm. He's been playing Magic: The Gathering since the mid-'90s—1996's Alliances, he thinks, was his first pack of cards. He recently got back into the stock market. While watching the value of his investments go up and down, he realized that, compared to these stocks, the old cards he and friends had were only going up in value. So, after sharing a bottle of wine with his partner one evening, he took about the same amount of money he'd been investing in stocks and bought an unopened pack of cards from Magic: The Gathering's Beta set. He didn't say exactly what that was, but they go for anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 depending on provenance and condition. What came next for Michael was a surprising experience he never intended to have. In fact, it was an accident.
The best cards from Magic's first two sets, Alpha and Beta, go for tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. They're on Magic's Reserved List, meaning they'll never, ever be reprinted. A Beta Black Lotus, which could appear in Michael's pack, goes for far less, but it's still a lot of money: Maybe as much as $60,000, and the value is rising all the time. It's not a terrible investment. But there's obviously no guarantee you'll find one in a pack from the era, and a pack of bad cards is worth far, far less than the price of the unopened pack. Bad pulls could see you out 80 percent of your thousands of dollars of investment. (A rare, perfect condition Alpha Black Lotus—Magic's most sought-after card—recently went for over $500,000.)
The pack arrived a while later. "Visit the Shores of Imagination," read the logo across the top. It had a price sticker placed by some store clerk in 1993 or 1994: $2.45.
"On Sunday when I woke up I started to reallllllly question my investment," Michael told me in an email. A bit frantic, he started to try and figure out the actual value of what he'd bought. He turned to an old trick of the earliest, most unscrupulous Magic players: Searching the pack. The plastic wrappers on the first two printings of Magic: The Gathering are notoriously thin, so thin that you can sometimes see through to what's inside with the right lighting and some very careful use of a thin implement to move the cards. "I had read that you could search a pack and see the contents without opening," said Michael. "I wanted to search it and if it had good cards in it, I would open. If not I would just hold it and let it appreciate in value as a sealed booster pack or keep as a piece of history."
When he couldn't figure out quite how to search the pack he turned to Reddit, and they did their best to help him. Reddit was pessimistic. "Man that pack has been searched to death," said the top comment. Michael tried what people said to search the pack, but it wasn't working. "I am convinced it cannot be done with Beta," he wrote to me.
The next morning, anxious and bleary-eyed and still in his underwear, Michael decided to look again. He spent time delicately trying to tap a card out of alignment with the rest. The worst happened: "I took one last ditch effort to search and accidentally broke the seal at the back of the pack at the seam, which left me no choice but to open it," he said. Hands shaking, he went through the cards one by one.
The last card was a Black Lotus. His pack's single rare card was the most valuable card possible. "I literally blank stared at it for a few seconds. My brain was full-on loading screen," Michael said, "The first coherent thought I remember having was, 'No. This is fake. This HAS to be fake. There is no way...'"
He screamed. "After that it was a blur of me trying to find my card bag that had cases in it and yelling for my life partner to stay away from the table," he said. "She thought something was wrong based on how I sounded. You have to realize, I was literally in my underwear running around the house trying to find a case to put this thing in!"
Michael went and updated Reddit on the situation. "I'm shaking and my gf thinks I'm crazy," he put in the title. He posted another update a few hours later, for the disbelieving, with a better shot of the Lotus.
The Beta Black Lotus he pulled is worth something north of $5,000 if it's graded to be in bad shape. The print quality of the early Magic sets isn't that consistent, so even a mint out of the pack card can be relatively "bad" shape. Even then, card graders PSA tracked a beat up Beta Black Lotus graded on the low end of the scale, "Very Good 3," that sold for $22,796 earlier this year. A "Near Mint 8.5" card sold for $32,001 last year. PSA's website estimates that the highest quality Beta Black Lotus, a "Gem" or "Mint 10," should sell for at least $60,000.
Michael says he makes a comfortable living. The money isn't life-changing, but "it absolutely is a very significant amount of money to me." He plans to get the card in a quality case and put it in a bank vault until a professional collectible card grader can get to it.
That doesn't halt some skepticism. There are plenty of people on Reddit saying that it's some kind of scam, that Michael is a collector trying to drive up the price of unopened packs, and more. I was able to verify Michael's identity, as well as some details of his story, and that just doesn't seem to be the case. Either way, he promises to update Reddit, and us too I hope, when there's more to say.
A few hours after his first update, someone went back to his first Reddit post and replied to the top comment. Remember that one? "Man that pack has been searched to death," it said.
"Well this comment did not age well," said the reply.