In another article on this site, I list some of the most valuable trading cards known to man. Let’s say you actually get your hands on a truly valuable card. Maybe you just have some cards that aren’t worth anything yet, but you think that they might be one day. In either case, you’ll want to preserve that card so that it doesn’t degrade.
That’s where official card grading and certification come into play. Card graders have been around for a long time. These are the same people that have been grading sports cards since forever. After Magic the Gathering came out and the cards started becoming valuable, grading companies quickly started offering grading for them too. So now every collector has to make the decision on whether to pay for grading or not.
Why Grade a Card?
I think the main reason to have a card graded is pretty obvious. It provides an objective third-party verdict on what condition the card is in. That means much more clarity on the actual value of the card in question. It also means keeping the card from getting any worse. The grading company will encapsulate the card, so as long as the seal is never broken the card’s grade will not get any worse – at least not over a time span that makes any difference.
The weirdest reason to get your card professionally graded is that the mere act of having the grading done increases the value of the card. This can offset the cost of actually getting the card graded, another reason to get your valuable cards sealed up.
Who to Go To?
Card grading is a system built on trust. The credibility of the company doing the grading is large part of the final value of the card itself. There may be quite a few card-grading companies across the world, but only a few are household names among collectors. Two of the best-known companies are PSA and BGS. That’s Professional Sports Authenticator and Beckett Grading Services, respectively.
While both of these companies are well-respected, PSA has the bigger pedigree. As you can tell from the name, they make their money mainly from grading collectible sports cards. Getting a PSA grading is going to make the biggest difference to the value of your card. For that reason I’ve chosen to use the PSA grading standards as the center of this discussion. Other graders will have similar but, probably, subtly different grading frameworks.
Numerical Mint Grades
Cards are graded on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “poor” and 10 being “gem mint”. The criteria for what makes a card “gem” mint or merely mint are on the PSA website, but there is still some degree of subjectivity. As you can expect, almost no cards are graded gem mint. That puts them into an ultra-rare category and has a big effect on their value.
For a card to be a gem, it has to be completely stain-free. The original gloss must be there in full. Everything from the paper to the edges must be perfect. PSA gives some allowance for misprinting. After all, some of the oldest cards were not printed with very reliable technology. However, if misprinting takes away from the card’s look, it won’t be a gem.
If you have taken exemplary care of the card, the most likely grade to get is Mint (9). A 9 card is in virtually perfect condition, but is allowed to have one minor flaw. A slight wax stain on the back, slight off-white borders or small printing errors. Anything less perfect than this and you are knocked down to near-mint (8).
An 8 card looks mint on the face of it, but frayed edges on up to two corners, misprinting, and slight off-white borders bring it down. This is still a great grade, however.
A near-mint 7 card has a little more damage still – a little fraying on the corners, image focus issues, minor blemishes, and some wax staining. The card should also still be mostly glossy.
A 6 card is known as an “excellent” mint card. These cards have surface wear you can see, a little bit of scratching, graduated fraying on the corners, loss of gloss, off-whiteness on borders, and so on. They still look good on the face of it, but have multiple issues under inspection.
The middle grade (5) is known simply as “excellent”. Here the corners are starting to become just a little rounded. Much less gloss is still there; there can be some chipping, defects that are visible to the unaided eye, and light scratches, but overall the card still looks very appealing and retains good value.
Below 5, things start to really hurt. The “very good-excellent” 4 card can have a light crease, have only some gloss left, be lightly scuffed or scratched, and have modest surface wear. A “very good” 3 card has rounded corners, some surface wear, or light scuffing and/or light scratches. The gloss is mostly gone, but still visible. A visible crease may be there as well. A fair amount of border yellowing, slight stains on the face, and printing defects all fall within this grade. A “good” 2 card has significant rounding, obvious surface wear, chipping, several creases, discoloration and scuffing, and scratching. There’s a 1.5 grade called “fair” which means a card is not a complete write off, although it’s worse than the 2 card in almost every way. A “poor” 1 card has extreme wear, missing back layer, missing corners, or having torn edges, creases, and so on. This rating means the value of the card is almost nothing compared to the higher grades.
Apart from the 1.5 cards, there are some half point grades, such as 8.5 where a card doesn’t deserve a 9, but is in better shape than an 8.
Qualifiers are special additions to the numerical grade that mean the grade is qualified. That means the grader felt the card deserved its grade but there was still a flaw that could have knocked it down, and that collectors should know about it.
An “OC” code on a PSA card means that the card is too off-center for the grade, but that this was deemed not serious enough to knock it down or affect the appeal. “ST” means staining, where the amount of staining is below what that grade should have. “PD” is short for “print defect”. “OF” is short for “out of focus”. “MK” means someone made an ink or pencil mark on the card. Of course, if the mark in question is an autograph by a celebrity, this might not hurt the card’s value at all! “MC” means miscut. Sometimes these flaws are so severe that they don’t just knock you down a grade or two, but are deemed “ungradable”. Let’s look at that now.
Sometimes when you send your card to be graded it comes straight back without a grade or encapsulation. That’s a sad outcome, but there are a number of issues that make a card ungradable, and essentially makes its value zero. That’s one of the reasons you should insist that any valuable card you want to buy has been professionally graded.
There are many things that can cause grading rejection. Most of them have to do with willful tampering with the card to get a grade it did not originally deserve. It’s always better to have the card graded in its actual natural condition. Don’t try to make things “better”.
Other issues aren’t anyone’s fault. Certain factory errors will also disqualify a card from being graded. Alternatively, you can get non-numerical grades. There are two of these when it comes to PSA. N-0 is a grade that only certifies that a card is authentic and not a copy. There’s nothing related to its condition here. You can actually ask for an N-0 if all you want is for the card to be encapsulated.
An AA or “Authentic Altered” grade means that the card is real, but that it has been altered in some way that means it can’t be graded.
There are nine other factors that the PSA lists. An obvious one is if the card is counterfeit, in which case it is entirely worthless in most cases. If the card has been cut with a scalpel or sharp scissors to improve the card edges, that will get a swift rejection. If it looks like someone tried to clean the card, that’s a disqualification.
ANY restoration effort, such as building up the card paper, will get the card booted out of grading. Recoloring to make a card more vibrant will also result in the same rejection. The card also has to fall within the factory-specified size range. If it is too big or too small it will be rejected, even if it was actually printed authentically. A factory miscut also counts here. The same goes if the card isn’t centered properly.
Making the Grade
Obviously, you should not pay to have every card you own graded and encapsulated. Not only would this be stupidly expensive, the vast majority of cards will never be worth anything.
When the MTG alpha Black Lotus shipped for the first time, no one could know that one day this card would be worth thousands and thousands of dollars. The only real way to get a gem mint copy of one of these cards is to open up a sealed pack from that generation. Yes, they still do exist!
The best you can do with cards that aren’t worth anything now, but could be worth something in the future, is to handle them with care. If you watch YouTube videos of people opening up vintage sealed packs, you’ll notice they use gloves. The moment the oils from your fingers touch the card, you’ve already put a process of degradation into place. So why not use gloves when opening up your own sealed packs? Put them straight into fresh card sleeves from the foil. You can use these in play without harming the card much or at all. Avoid bending them or keeping them somewhere with high humidity, and you should be fine. Should it turn out that a card from your present collection is suddenly worth a fortune 20 years down the line, you can have them graded and encapsulated straight from the sleeve. It is, however, best not to be too obsessed with this aspect of collection. The most important thing is to actually enjoy your cards!