Four factors led to the card’s high selling price: Printing, rarity, condition, and the card’s power when used in gameplay.
When Wizards of the Coast‘s Magic: The Gathering launched in 1993, the first, or Alpha, printing of the full set of 295 game cards had black borders, Kotaku reports. After the Alpha cards, a limited Beta printing added more cards and corrected errors on some of the originals. An Unlimited print edition of the same cards but with white borders followed the Beta printing. The Unlimited printing continues today.
Only 1,100 Alpha Black Lotus cards were printed. If 1,100 cards sound like a lot, consider these figures: According to Wikipedia, 2 billion Magic cards were sold by April 1997. Between 2008 and 2016, Wizards printed more than 20 billion cards. Even Unlimited Black Lotus cards are worth four figures, according to Kotaku, but the Alpha Black Lotus is the most valuable of all.
The $88,000 eBay auction card was also in top condition, rated a 9.5 Gem Mint by the Beckett collectible grading service. “Taking the scarcity of the card into account and the near-pristine quality of the card, it’s certainly one of the best-preserved copies in the world,” Kotaku reported.
The power the Black Lotus card gives game players is such that it can “destabilize” the game, according to Kotaku. Magic: The Gathering’s rules structure gameplay in a manner that players grow in power gradually with each turn. The Black Lotus card gives players the equivalent of a four times advantage.
Due to the havoc the card could cause during a game, Wizards of the Coast stopped printing the Unlimited edition Black Lotus card in 1999. Currently, the Black Lotus card is banned from competition and tournament play except for the least restricted tournaments, according to an earlier Digital Trends article.
As powerful as the Black Lotus may be, it seems unlikely the card auctioned on eBay would ever be used in a game. Any handling would almost guarantee a reduction in the card’s condition rating, although possibly no decrease in value. Today, an Alpha Black Lotus graded 9.0 or “Mint” by the Beckett Grading Service is for sale on eBay for $100,000.