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There's money in Magic: The booming business of rare game cards

Post Malone is known for smashing music-streaming records, but the pop star is also raising the bar in a more niche arena.

The musician, a super fan of the fantasy tabletop card game Magic: The Gathering, just bought a one-of-a-kind card from the game in a record sale, helping boost a growing trend that's made game cards almost as popular as sports cards.

Another fan who pulled the newly released Magic card, depicting the golden ring from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, sold it to Post Malone for a reported $2 million. It's the first time the price of a playing card from Magic — which hasn't previously seen the same kind of mainstream success as other trading card games like Pokémon — crossed the seven-figure mark.

"It's kind of like the first time a baseball card ever sold for a million dollars," said Ken Goldin, a longtime sports memorabilia collector and owner of Goldin Auctions. "To all of the tens of millions of collectors in the world who collect Magic: The Gathering, it basically has solidified their collection and says 'Hey, this is serious business.' "

It's the latest sign that trading card games sector is gaining a strong foothold in a global industry that for more than a century has been dominated by sports cards. Thanks to nostalgic Gen Z and Millennials, who grew up collecting game cards in the 1990s and 2000s, fantasy characters are now giving star athletes a run for their money.

A few conditions are driving the market popularity of TCGs, the industry's shorthand for the category. During the pandemic, people went digging through basements collections find out how much their old Pokémon, Yu-gi-oh! and Magic cards were worth. The spree led to enormous backlogs at companies that authenticate and assess the condition of cards. Some companies expanded their operations to keep up with the demand. The release of new sets with rare cards and celebrity purchases have further fueled the excitement.

Game card authentication activity is at an all-time high

Last month, the number of TCG cards people had graded was closer than ever to eclipsing that in the sports card category. Grading, a prerequisite for listing collectibles for auction on secondary market sites like eBay, can affect the card's price. On a 1-10 scale, cards are graded on their visual appeal based a number of factors that include coloring, centering and condition, with 10 being the highest score.

Professional Sports Authenticator, which holds a majority of the card grading market, saw more than 514,000 TCG cards in July, according to data compiled by GemRate, a company that tracks grading activity; the number of sports cards graded over the same period was about 528,000. That's five times the number of game cards PSA graded two years ago.

A cultural zeitgeist

Less common in the sports cards world, there's genuine star power in the game card collector community, bringing relevance to the collectibles.

Ryan Stuczynski, GemRate's founder, says a spike in grading activity on PSA last year followed a high-profile sale of a rare Pikachu card to YouTube star and provocateur Logan Paul, who Stuczynski credits with keeping momentum high in the market. The influencer, who boasts a YouTube following of more than 23 million, bought the card for a record $5.275 million in 2021, the second-most expensive trading card of any category known to be sold; a mint-condition Mickey Mantle baseball card leads the pack at $12.6 million.

Paul, a wrestler signed to WWE, flaunted his holographic Pokémon prize, wearing the card inside a diamond-encrusted necklace ahead of his headline-grabbing boxing match with former champ Floyd Mayweather.

"It moves it from being like a child thing to something that's a little bit culturally meaningful," Stuczynski said.

The risks of accelerated hype

Hasbro's Magic: The Gathering partnership with Lord of the Rings is one of the tabletop game's latest in a series of recent crossovers. The Post Malone-acquired "One Ring" card was Magic's first one-of-one card release. The strategy follows the sports card playbook of introducing artificial scarcity with new, rare cards.

The success of its release, which set off a bounty war and earned Hasbro some $100 million in product sales, will likely inspire a repeat, says auction house operator Goldin.

"It's gonna lead manufacturers to do more unusual items like the ring card," he said.

But, Goldin adds, if game card companies get too carried away with trying to introduce artificial scarcity into the market in the form of rare card releases, that could lead to inflated pricing, pulling down card value marketwide.

"If something is being produced for the sole purpose of being a collectible, it's less likely that it is going to be valuable over the years, as opposed to something that wasn't intended to be a collectible and just happened to be," he said. Baseball cards, for example, were not originally meant to be collectibles, he added.

Hasbro's rapid output of Magic cards could also disrupt what fans enjoyed about gameplay in the first place. The pace of product has already started to put off some devotees. After the Lord of the Rings collaboration was announced, not everyone was thrilled with the proliferation of card variety.

"The quantity of new cards, the confusion of a billion different arts for each card, and the complexity creep on cards that do 17 different things have all made it hard for me to keep up with [Magic: The Gathering]" one Reddit user wrote.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emma Bowman