While the most valuable Magic card in terms of value is undoubtedly the Black Lotus, it is not (as it’s often cited) the rarest card of all. That honor arguably goes to a card with no edition and only a single print. That card? The 1996 World Champion.
Even Wizards of the Coast has called it the rarest card of all time. The only closest card is a similar one print wonder, Shichifukujin Dragon, whose card is slightly less rare because it’s printing plates were never confirmed to be destroyed, unlike the 1996 World Champion's plates. There's more to that story, but we'll do an article on Mr. Dragon another time.
So how did it come about?
In 1996, Wizards of the Coast wanted to give the winner something special for the World Championship in Seattle in addition to the money and prestige a victory brought. An obvious solution presented itself: A pretty damn powerful card with art by the famed Magic illustrator Christopher Rush.
Given the name 1996 World Champion, the unclassified creature needed one of each color to be played, was immune to most of things one could do to a creature in the game, and was only as strong as their opponent was.
The rules text of the card actually says “Cannot be the target of spells or effects. World Champion has power and toughness equal to the life total of target opponent. (0): Discard your hand to search your library for 1996 World Champion and reveal it to all players. Shuffle your library and put 1996 World Champion on top of it. Use this ability only at the beginning of your upkeep, and only if 1996 World Champion is in your library.”
After a long fought Championship, Australian Tom Chanpheng emerged as the winner, playing with a significantly weakened White Weenie deck after judges made him replace a few cards with land cards due to some technical and playing issues.
After Chanpheng received his card, Wizards of the Coast realized that they still had extra copies of it due to the run sheet including them, as well as printing plates for what was supposed to be a one-of-a-kind card. So they promptly destroyed all of them in a small post-championship ceremony, thus ensuring there would only be one 1996 World Champion in existence -- both in the sense of a person and the card.
After 1996, Chanpheng played in a few more tournaments before never playing Magic professionally again in 1997.
In 2001 Chanpheng sold his card to a private collector for $17,500. Today, the card is still owned by that collector, with the card still encased in the acrylic trophy.
Rumors of it coming up for sale do occasionally crop up, such as the fake, now taken down eBay listing for $200,000 in 2017, but nothing official has been confirmed since 2001.
Should the card somehow ever make it’s way to another Magic match, it’s status as a ceremonial card only clears it for friendly matches, as it prevents it from even being played in Legacy or Vintage tournaments.
The story of the 1996 World Champion card, as well as it’s virtual disappearance after 2001, has made the card an alluring mystery in the history of Magic: the Gathering.