The first Magic sleeves

Many Magic the Gathering players ask, is it worth it to buy sleeves?

From The Prodigal Sorcer fanzine.

I wrote a bit about deck protectors once before. Back then I was on the hunt for the Chaos Orb puzzle; an early sales promotion by Ultra Pro to encourage players to use sleeves. The attitude towards "card condoms" was a different beast a quarter of a century ago. Many tournaments didn't even allow them, and most players didn't see the need. Some fancy people used playmats, and the rare perfectionist could try out the toploader or the penny sleeve used by baseball card collectors, but that was about it.

In late 2017, about a year after I wrote the post on the puzzles, I got in contact with Frank Whittaker at Ultra Pro; a senior at the company who had been around during the early days of TCGs. He noted, "Not many people know, but we invented the Deck Protector and the Deck Box. Before us people used Toploaders to play card games. We also revolutionized collecting cards. Before our polypropylene page people stored their cards in PVC pages which over time destroys trading cards." I mean, I love rubber bands and shoeboxes as much as the next guy, but it is hard to deny that the deckbox and the PVC-free binder page were good ideas.

Let's crack a pack of those once new-fangled trading card sleeves and see how well they stack up today.

Nothing on the package hints about any puzzle pieces nor the "Black Lotus Quest"...

Sleeves, and what appears to be some papers in the back. Very promising. While the odds of opening a Black Lotus #9 or a Chaos Orb #7 are minuscule to say the least, just the fact that it is possible makes this oddly exciting. On a more realistic note, I'm crossing my fingers for a sweet Chaos Orb piece.

Boom, random stuff. Everything should contain random stuff. And a very nice Chaos Orb piece indeed. The red pamphlet contains product information from Ultra Pro, and the white one is about the Black Lotus quest.

Rad gear. I might want a new binder.

"It's Easy to Win !!" Lies.

Few of these were ever used. Though I do know one guy who managed to complete a puzzle as intended and send it to Ultra Pro for the cash. And apparently he wasn't alone. Of the around ten known complete puzzles in existence, I believe at least three of them were acquired directly from employees at Ultra Pro, hinting that they were sent in and then sold or donated by employees after the promotion was over. I've tried to figure out exactly how many were made, but without success. At this point I feel fairly confident that it was around twenty (my current bet is six Lotus and twelve Chaos Orb), and that around a handful were sent in, some or all of which then returned to market.

Compared to many of the "sports card puzzles" Ultra Pro made, this was actually seen as quite a lot. To quote Frank Whittaker again, "It was quite a while back. I wish I could tell you the amount of cards we distributed. [...] I will tell you this: we had more winners of the Magic 9-pkt promotion than we did any other 9-card puzzle. We had multiple sports puzzles and had more legitimate winners with the Magic promotion than any other."
Enough with the promotion, let's test the actual product! Though I think I spot a potential problem...
Yeah, mixing Alpha and other editions doesn't really work here. This was the main reason Alpha was so much cheaper than Beta in the 90s; if you had Alpha cards in your deck, you had to play with only Alpha cards as the differently cut corners would classify the cards as "marked" otherwise. Before opaque sleeves became popular and this became a non-issue, a Beta Black Lotus would have far greater application than an Alpha Lotus. But screw it, let's build an Alpha only deck. First edition Magic sleeves beget first edition Magic cards.
Ok, issue #2. The holostamp is cut from a much larger sheet with repeating Magic logos, and as such it is trivial to find stamps with distinctly different prints/cuts. So let's reverse the sleeves to avoid the stamps acting as marks.

It's a good thing we're not playing SW:CCG right now. Unless you already knew that Obi-Wan had forfeit value 9, that information is pretty well hidden by the holostamp.

Ok, I just built a sweet Magic deck. It follows the Northern Paladin's Alpha League rules, which are awesome. But I really want to play 93 cards, as 93 is the most glorious number when playing Alpha-only. But I only have 60 sleeves. You'd be hard pressed to find a pack of sleeves today that contains 60 sleeves. It is a solid disregard towards the concept of sideboards for a start. Also, if I break one, it would lead to troubles in most constructed formats (in the Alpha League minimum deck size is 40 however, so I'm safe there for a while).

Shuffling is still a task I should approach with some finesse. It seems more likely that I'll damage the cards than the sleeves, as the sleeves are short and the cards have a tendency to start peeking out from the top.

Hm... Appears unlikely that my new deck will fit in my new deck box.

Unlikeliness confirmed. Yeah, I'm kinda just bending the cards at this point, and that can be frowned upon when going full Alpha.

1993 style deckbox it is.

So, I'll need to battle test the sleeves a bit before I can reach a final conclusion, but I guess like 'C' or something? Minuses being that there's only 60 sleeves in a pack, they are dangerously short in length, clear sleeves are frowned upon in modern Magic, and they are very expensive as sleeves go (I mean, they weren't that expensive in '97 or so, but 20+ years of being off the market will do that to most accidental collectibles). Pluses being that they are rad, and that you'll get a surprise gift in the box. Like I could probably sell that common Chaos Orb piece I just opened to get three or four packs of Dragon Shields. Also a plus that they invented the whole playing card sleeve market. So A+ by mid 90s standards. If you still have any of these left laying around, I'd say take them for a spin.


  1. One interesting thing to note: Zak Dolan, winner of the 94' MtG championship, mentioned that his opponent was using alpha lands combined with non-alpha cards. In other words, he was cheating! But the judges didn't see it as a problem.

    1. Haha, I did not know that :) Thanks for sharing that story!

  2. Glorious "deckbox", I love it!

  3. Glorious "deckbox", I love it!


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