Off Topic: Sleeves and Counters and Playmats, Oh Cliche

Over the years, I have developed a growing interest how we, as human beings, have an uncanny desire to enhance our possessions. We decorate our houses with knick-knacks and other various objects that have no practical value. Entire clubs and organizations are dedicated to pimping out our vehicles - we then parade them around at festivals or events for all to admire. Shopping malls are filled with glamorous goods irrelevant to our basic needs. As any hobby or interest expands, the pursuit of nonsensical ornamentation of our belongings becomes reflective of one's personality.

The availability of consumer products and opportunities to be creative with a person's Magic collection has grown over the years. Fanatics can purchase card sleeves, play-mats, counters, dice, deck boxes, collector's sleeves, binders, and carrying cases to give our cards some bling-bling. Beyond simply flinging money around to perfect our Magic collection, players have the opportunity to be more creative in their development of ways to track life, counters, and tokens. Let's explore this seldom-talked-about topic.

Card Sleeves

The first card sleeves were made by Ultra-PRO in 1995. Before this time, the company was known as Rembrandt and owned by 20th Century. They produced a variety of products that included collector pages and card sleeves for baseball cards. For Rembrandt to diversify their product line to include sleeves for Magic was a simple strategy to pursue. Keep in mind; Rembrandt may have had a little coaxing from Wizards of the Coast.

Wizards had a problem with their ventures to expand the popularity of Magic by hosting tournaments. The snafu was that players were finding ways to cheat. One professional player even placed lands from a different set in his deck because he discovered the backings were a slightly different hue. This allowed the pilot of the deck to know whether the top card of the deck was a spell or a land. Others were also discovering ways to mark their cards. Well, this wasn't a good situation for Wizards to have, people corrupting their tournaments.

This little paragraph is pure speculation, but I assume that Wizards approached Ultra-PRO with their dilemma. I say this because if I were a multi-million dollar business like Ultra-PRO, I just wouldn't jump into producing sleeves for a very small market share such as Magic. It wouldn't be worth it. Therefore, Wizards had to pitch the idea of getting Ultra-PRO to produce a sleeve that would help solve their problems. Wizards may have had to sweeten the deal to convince the card sleeve company. In any case, it's history and both have benefited from the arrangement.

Those first sleeves were what are known today affectionately as "penny sleeves." These sleeves are still the cheapest investment for protecting the value of cards. When I first started collecting, lots of Magic players utilized penny sleeves. As the years have progressed, penny sleeves have gone by the wayside. Very rarely do I ever see anybody slinging cards in pennies nowadays. It is my own personal theory, but I believe one of the factors for this trend is because pennies just aren't cool. I have even thought this way. After a while, I even avoided pennies because I didn't want to be the poor kid. Nobody likes the poor kid. My tune has changed over the years as my collection has expanded exponentially. It would be a ridiculous for me to buy solid backed sleeves for all my decks. Besides, I don't think my Horror- or Illusion-themed decks really necessitate that kind of expenditure. As such, I have returned to buying pennies to sleeve the rest of my 120 decks.

There are other problems with pennies. For one, the incentive for shop owners to carry them has dwindled as players don't buy them and profit margins are slim to boot. Other disadvantages include that pennies are flimsy and a wee bit more difficult to shuffle. It's not necessarily a deal breaker, but definitely a nuisance. Oh yeah, and pennies don't have a solid back, which virtually makes them impossible to use in tournament environments unless you have perfectly mint condition cards such as a draft.

Shortly after the release of penny sleeves, Ultra-PRO coincidentally came out with a solid-back sleeve in black. Color options were slim for many years to come. When I first started, the options were black and blue with the newly released color of white. It was always interesting when a new color became available for purchase. The initial market entry would have stores selling out of them quite rapidly. Who doesn't want to be the first player to have green sleeves (old novel reference anyone)? We now have a plethora of colors to choose from.

My only gripe over the years is when a company changes their base colors slightly. This can be aggravating. When I buy more blue sleeves to only find that they don't match my previous blue sleeves, it really chaps my hide. I think I have four different blue decks, five different black decks, and some more of every other color. If I had my way, I would force them to put a number on the box next to the color. Example: Blue 12. Therefore, if I wanted the exact same color, I could go out and buy more Blue 12 sleeves instead of accidentally buying Blue 14 sleeves, which won't match any of my other blue-sleeved decks. This is even more frustrating when I have 40 sleeves left of Blue 12 and 100 Blue 14 sleeves. Instead of being able to sleeve two decks, now I can only sleeve one.

As the game's popularity grew, the sleeves turned out to be a successful business venture. Before long, Ultra-PRO was facing competition from a variety of competitors such as Dragon Shield, KMC, Armor Shield, and Player's Choice. This only enhances the color problem due to KMC's blue sleeves being different than Ultra-PRO's blue sleeves. Beyond the colors, I don't have a preference between any of these companies. In my experience, I haven't found a particular company's sleeves to be more durable over the other. All sleeves at some time begin to tear at the corner and become useless. I'm no card-sleeve expert, but I fail to understand why sleeves can't be crimped at the sides to give them a little more durability. I do hope the industry can find other innovations to make sleeves at least a little more resistant to wear.

Years later, we began getting artwork-laden, metallic, and holographic sleeves. The artwork available varies greatly. I have no beef with artwork, but the sleeves quickly lose their tournament viability. When I practiced for Chicago, I went through a couple sets of artwork sleeves. The artwork quickly becomes marked by scratches and dings. In my experience, stay away from artwork for decks destined for tournament play. The other problem with artwork is 10 to 20 percent of the sleeves will have a line etched through them or marked in some fashion. Even people of the most casual of environments will consider them marked. If you want artwork on your sleeves, make sure to buy extras because you will be throwing a few of them away. Artwork does have one final problem. If you are playing at the tournament level, sleeves with artwork that touches the edges of the sleeves may not be allowed. This is due to the fact the edges of the artwork will likely hit the edges of the sleeve in different places, making them clearly distinguishable from the sides. In the end, leave the artwork for the casual tables.

Here's what the Magic Tournament Rules say on sleeves:

Players may use plastic card sleeves or other protective devices on cards. If a player chooses to use card sleeves, all sleeves must be identical and all cards in his or her deck must be placed in the sleeves in an identical manner. If the sleeves feature holograms or other similar markings, cards must be inserted into the sleeves so these markings appear only on the faces of the cards.

During a match, a player may request that a judge inspect an opponent's card sleeves. The judge may disallow the card sleeves if he or she believes they are marked, worn, or otherwise in a condition or of a design that interferes with shuffling or game play. In the interest of efficiency, the judge may choose to delay any change of sleeves until the end of the match.

Competitive and Professional tournaments impose additional restrictions on sleeves. Highly reflective backs are not allowed; sleeves with artwork on their backs are only acceptable if there is a single color at the sleeves' edges; sleeves with holograms across some or all of the sleeve front or back are not allowed.

The Head Judge is the final authority on what sleeves are allowed.

Metallic sleeves are, well, shiny? Not much to say about them besides the fact they simply offer another "color" for players. Holograms are a different story. I made the mistake of buying a bunch of hologram sleeves off the internet for what I though was a heck of a deal. Somehow I failed to make the connection that the holograms were on the front of the sleeves. For some reason, I just thought the holograms were on the back of the sleeves. Holograms in a dimly lit room can be okay. However, in any kind of adequate lighting, it not only can be difficult for your opponent to read your cards; it can be difficult for yourself as well. I do think holograms are kind a cool, but they are just not worth the aggravation.

I do have a personal preference, but for other reasons. I prefer sleeves with a rough backing referred to either as "mat," "matte," or "non-gloss" sleeves. Over time, sleeves tend to get sweat, grime, and other dirt on them. With solid, flat, or glossy backs, decks can become almost glued together. This is a personal pet peeve of mine at tournaments. These glued-together decks become almost impossible to shuffle. The only feasible way is to riffle shuffle them. This usually results in an opponent becoming aggravated because of the possibility of damaging his precious cards. I say, get new sleeves or I really have to riffle shuffling your deck hard. Threats aside, rough backs are very resistant to becoming glued together. Even after extensive use, the rough backs shuffle as good as new. In the same context, rough backs resist sticking to the table. If you ever have a silently damp table, you can spend countless seconds trying to pick up a glossy sleeve with an opponent rolling his eyes as you desperately pick at your card.

The other advantage is that non-glossy sleeves resist marking. Glossy sleeves can be scratched with just a little bit of sugar left on a kitchen table. I have a refurbished antique wooden table. When we first got it done, the varnish hadn't dried completely smooth. My glossy sleeves got scratched horribly. After ruining an extensive number of these, my wife watched as I spent countless hours angrily and slowly running my hands gently over the table trying to find any pointy culprits. My rough backs were fine: no scratches, nada.

FYI: Matte from

a dull or dead surface, often slightly roughened, as on metals, paint, paper, or glass.


Ah, there were times when I thought playmats were stupid. For the longest time, I couldn't even find a playmate to buy or win. After I did, I finally broke down and bought myself a mat. It was well worth it. The more obvious of perks is that the mat keeps every pop spill and booger on the table off your cards. Playing on top of an unknown pop spill can quickly ruin an FNM as sleeves and cards begin sticking together. A playmat also gives a player the luxury of being able play on the floor, park bench, or any other flat surface. Heck, with a playmat, you could play cards at a beach full of attractive, young adults drinking at Spring Break, making mistakes they will never tell their future spouse about. I don't why, but you could.

The one thing I never considered before owning a playmat was the functionality of it. With a good, thick playmat, it allows a little cushion. The squishiness enables us players who chew our fingernails down to the nub to push our little fingers underneath our cards. The days of awkwardly picking at your cards, gone.

Now, I am not saying you have to buy a playmat. It is by no means essential to your play experience. Nonetheless, if you are a habitual nail biter, it might be in your best interest.

Again, Ultra Pro was the first to make playmats. As before, other companies have followed suit. The first playmats were pretty mundane. They mostly consisted of solid colors with maybe a little etching. We now have a smorgasbord of choices from custom artwork to several new mats with every Magic set. I do sometimes question the artwork chosen upon a new release. I think to myself, really, that's the best artwork from the set?

If you can't justify the expense, try hitting a Grand Prix and be the lucky early few to get a free one - or you can think of it as buying a playmat and getting to play for free. I mention this because of the large number of players without mats. It is not necessarily because they can't afford it, but if you had $20 to spend, would you buy a mat or more cards? I am guessing you would buy cards. In my own personal bias, I think playmats should be included in an Ultra Fat Pack for each new set. The Ultra Fat Pack would include cards, the book, a life counter, a few dice, and a playmat.


Counters are always interesting. No Magic player keeps track of counters quite the same as the next. I have gone through numerous renditions myself. I have used anything from dice, change, pieces of paper, things you light with a match, pieces of candy, and a marker. It is equally interesting to see how opponents keep track of counters. One of my fonder Magic memories is when a buddy and I started using candy as counters. As the night progressed, the main goal turned into trying to kill each other's creatures for the candy instead of actually winning the game. Even further into the darkness, we began building decks specifically for this Magic buffet. Tokens turned into crackers and counters became sausage and cheese. I remember our girlfriends thought it quite comical as we scrounged through the kitchen for things we could feasibly use to play Magic with and eat.

Things used as counters can have a lot of drawbacks and can even force game play to a point of being not very fun. They fall under the table, have to be counted, changed, put back away; they create an unrecoverable play state if some jerk bumps the table, if they get misplaced; they have to be carefully moved when a card phases out or gets confiscated by an opponent, are in the way when tapping and untapping, get swiped, get stolen, and is another forsaken thing you need to carry with you when you go to play Magic.

Dice and change are the simplest. My problem with dice is they can easily be bumped in a heated game. This causes confusion and it wastes time. Dice also have to be constantly flipped and you get to spend lots of time watching people roll a 20-sided die around very slowly to find the appropriate number. Change works equally well. Pennies are one counter and nickels are five counters and so on. An asset for change is it will always available and inconsequential when it is stolen.

Pieces of paper can work well for counters. The problem with paper is that it's harder on the opponent. During long games, you will have opponents constantly ask for the number of counters. I should say that it is not as intuitive as dice and change. If you don't like pieces of paper on your card with scribbles, counters can be calculated on a notepad that is also keeping track of your life total and game status. Again, the problem lies here when the opponent steals the card. If they don't have a pen handy, it can cause delay when they have to borrow yours.

Now, I am the type of player who will make a deck out of anything. Sure, I play Standard, Legacy, and EDH, but I have a casual Fungus and Graft deck that makes keeping track of counters a full-time job. This is what has led me to the use of a marker for keeping track of counters. Marker on Magic cards, blasphemy! Settle down, I use a dry-erase marker on cards that have been sleeved. The dry-erase marker has many advantages. One, you don't need a truck-load of change, dice, or counters to keep track of everything. You just need a marker. That's it. A marker. A marker that fits in your pocket. Two, cards are easier to pass to your blue opponents. Marker doesn't fall under the table or accidentally get pocketed at the end of the game. You can't lose marks. Three, it is customizable. You can write anything. If you want to write -1/-0, you can write -1/-0. If you want to write 10 for ten chance counters, you can write 10. If you have a Rebel deck sporting unlimited life gain with an Unspeakable Symbol and a Ramosian Sergeant with one billion +1/+1 counters on it, you can write one billion. Tick marks work equally well for cards sporting fading, vanishing, and suspend. A tick mark can easily be erased every upkeep with a thumb, finger, or shirt sleeve.

Now, before you blast me in the forums for marking cards, this isn't Marked Cards. I have talked to a number of high-level judges about it. You are marking the front of your cards, not the back of the cards. As long as the backs of the cards do not become marked in a certain fashion, your cards are mark-free. Just ensure you erase all marker before you shuffle up for the next game to eliminate any chance of it rubbing off on the back of card sleeves. To further eliminate this problem, use a black dry-erase marker with decks with black sleeves or a blue dry-erase marker on blue sleeves. From experience (I have been doing this for a couple of years now), the use of a dry-erase marker does make most players wary and sometimes judges. Again, you are not illegally marking your cards until it transfers to the backs.

If you are skeptical, try it out. Even judges I have probed about this give me the questioning eye when asked. However, when they watch the process of using a marker, they give the go ahead. I have had a few experiences of opponents calling foul only to have the judge give the okay. This usually results in the judge checking my sleeves to find no marks on the back of my cards. As a final thought, though: if using a dry-erase marker still makes you uncomfortable for use at the tournament level, I do suggest it for those Fungus and Graft decks for casual play.

What happens when you use Makeshift Mannequin to throw a Sporesower Thallid into play and graft a +1/+1 counter from a Llanowar Reborn

Deck Boxes

In the beginning of my Magic career, I didn't have anything to store my cards in. I remember fondly the numerous decks I had rubber-banded together. The rubber bands damaged cards, damaged sleeves, broke, and ran out. Eventually, I got smart and started buying tournament packs just so I had something to put my cards into for my non-sleeved decks, a.k.a. decks with inexpensive cards. At the same time, I only bought sleeves that came in deck boxes. It's the sole reason I bought Dragon Shield or Ultra-PRO sleeves over others. I just wanted the deck boxes.

Nothing much has changed since then. After getting annoyed by flipping open and rummaging through numerous tournament packs looking for a deck one day, I began cutting windows on the boxes. I then stuck some notable card of the deck in the front to designate whether it's my Bird deck or whatever up front. It's a quicker and easier way to identify the decks. Shortly after, Wizards began putting little windows on their Intro Packs. This only proves that I have to go back to wearing my aluminum hats to keep Wizards from stealing any more ingenious ideas out of my brain waves. Damn Wizards and their telepathy. Oh wait, those are just pictures. Hmmm... still seems fishy to me.

Other than that, I am a little sad they are discontinuing the tournament packs. The majority of the time I bought tournament packs. This ensured I had enough packs for my decks and lands for those decks. Don't get me wrong; I understand the business reasons for the change. It makes sense, but then it kind of doesn't. My prediction is that new players will be forced to buy actual deck boxes to hold their cards. Is this a good thing? Then again, maybe it is the least of our worries.

If you got some cash to burn, you can always just buy a deck box. Unfortunately, deck boxes have been one of the slowest-evolving products. Some of the most expensive available for purchase are Ion Deck Boxes covered in colored leather. If this is out of your price range, a few companies have deck boxes with fancy artwork. Most stores do not carry them since they move slowly and at lower volumes than other products. In some shops, most deck boxes can be observed collecting dust. It's an area of the game that I can see lots of room for further evolution.

I am a little surprised I never see anybody drawing their own art or whatever on their deck boxes. I may be a little biased, but I find most Magic players to be on the creative and inventive side. Thus, I do find it a little peculiar that I never see more variety with people's deck boxes. They are simply just dull. Since I find human behavior very interesting, it makes me wonder on the aspects of this phenomenon. Are deck boxes really that inconsequential?

Collector Sleeves/Binders

There are times that I miss the days I had a smaller collection of cards. It was easy and simple. I had a small stack for each color. When my piles became unmanageable, I started placing them in boxes. As my collection continued to grow, finding the cards I needed became a cumbersome chore. Riffling through a collection looking for a card can be taxing on the wrists. It became worse when I'd start to forget about another card I wanted and had to riffle back through my collection.

Eventually, most long-time players usually move onto collector sleeves in binders. Some still don't. I started with one binder for all my expensive cards. Not necessarily a trade binder, but just my rares. For most players, this is synonymous with a trade binder. Over the years, I have purchased enough sleeves to have a binder for each color, lands along with artifacts, and multicolored cards. It may seem obsessive compulsive. I agree, but when I need a card, I can find it in a matter of seconds.

Carrying Cases

I never purchased mine. My sister-in-law bought me one for the holidays. Cases aren't just for storing decks. Dice, dry-erase markers, playmats, snacks, extra change, and life-counters can all be placed in a carrying case. I really have grown to like mine, but I don't always find it necessary. It is definitely a product I waver back and forth on. Sometimes it seems vital; other days, it's just in the way. Other times, I think a backpack works equally well. It all depends what you need in a case.

If you want to, you can even purchase a suitcase style rack with rollers in which you can stack multiple cases within a suitcase. Dealers have them, mostly. I think it is unnecessary for the average Joe. Do you really need to bring 40,000 cards to an FNM? I doubt it. Even if you do, most players want to trade for a particular card and won't spend the time going through 40,000 cards.


I'm kidding, right? Sorta. During the summer, my basement gets extremely humid. As this phenomenon happens, the foils can be seen curling. It got so bad last summer that the sides of my foil Stream Hopper were actually touching. I turned on the dehumidifier and the foils started bending back. Winter hits and the basement reverses directions and becomes a desert. All my foils bent back to their original position. This can be seen in the same case as when a person paints one side of a two-by-four. If the board isn't nailed up right away, during the humid months of the summer it will begin to warp. Yes, playing with cards can cause them to warp. However, if your foils begin curling, you might want to think about placing them in a different part of your household or get a dehumidifier.

New Innovations

Magic has changed a lot over the years, not just rule changes. The accessories we purchase or create have evolved alongside of the game. What does the future hold? For the entrepreneurs out there, I believe there is still much room for innovation because Magic is just coming into its teenage years; still developing and growing.


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